Hair today, gone tomorrow? Schools urged to review dress code amid row over Afros

12 September 2019 - 14:13 By Dan Meyer
Pupils at Malibu High School in Cape Town are protesting against a dress code that prohibits them from wearing hair naturally. Stock photo.
Pupils at Malibu High School in Cape Town are protesting against a dress code that prohibits them from wearing hair naturally. Stock photo.
Image: 123RF/Michael Simons

Three years after a national furore over natural hair at Pretoria High School for Girls the same dress code row is raging in Cape Town.

Pupils at Malibu High School in Blue Downs are up in arms after being instructed to keep their "outrageous" hair in plaits or tied up. They are demanding that the dress code policy be reviewed.

Schools across the country have made headlines for taking action against pupils wearing their hair in an Afro - since the drama in 2016 at the Pretoria school.

Western Cape education department (WCED) spokesperson Bronagh Hammond said that the department had asked all schools to review their dress codes.

"The hair policy [at Malibu] is currently being reviewed and discussed with relevant stakeholders of the school. Schools may decide on dress codes, including hairstyles, as part of their codes of conduct. The department has requested that schools review their codes of conduct periodically to ensure that they achieve their purpose in line with the constitution, while taking into account ongoing discussion on what codes of conduct should require with the participation of learners."

Malibu High School principal David Links declined to comment on whether the school would change its policy, when contacted by TimesLIVE.

A caretaker and a teacher at the school have been suspended since the row began a week ago in connection with alleged "racist" comments made about hair.

"The caretaker will face a disciplinary hearing regarding the comments allegedly made. He is a school governing body appointee and is currently suspended," said Hammond. 

"An investigation into the comments made by one of the educators [an Afrikaans teacher] is also under way by labour relations. The educator is employed by the department."

TimesLIVE reported in March that Hyde Park High School had decided to give a pupil  detention because her hair was "distracting and attention-grabbing". 

Following that, veteran actress Florence Masebe called for a national hair policy. 

"We clearly need a national hair policy. One that doesn't treat black people's hair as unacceptable. We can't keep returning to the same argument every few weeks. 

"Sadly, what we have now is no better. Schools and their governing bodies get away with codes of conduct that problematise blackness," she claimed.

Rector and vice-chancellor of the University of the Free State Jonathan Jansen told TimesLIVE on Thursday that to understand the lack of change on the issue, one first had to understand the resilient conservatism in schools. 

"It's important to understand the resilient cultures of schools," he said. "The schools continue to enforce their traditions as they see fit. We shouldn't be surprised that teachers, parents, governing bodies, etc still measure the length of a girl's dress or hair.

"The majority of parents and governing bodies do not see this as a problem," he said. "They would make an argument that a uniform enforces disciplinary rules. The parents are extremely influential."

He said he sympathised with those demanding a review of policies but suggested that schools would not necessarily budge on it. 

"I'm with the kids - I don't really care how they dress, so long as they are teachable," he said. "But I also understand how conservative parents dictate the culture of a school and I think that the challenge for policy makers is to look for alternative ways for young kids to express their culture and identity that doesn't rely on a dress code," he said. 

"Have the discussion with your students. Those kind of discussions help."