On Sunday a photo of a young girl with her arms crossed (above) infront of a looming adult man lit up social media. The photo and it’s resulting conversation was accompanied with the hashtag #StopRacismAtPretoriaGirlsHigh. Her name is Zulaikha Patel and she is one of the many young girls who decided to take an active step in ensuring a non-discriminatory and non-culturally demeaning learning environment for girls of colour in her school. And hopefully across the country. According to an interview with Zulaikha’s older sister, Amira with the Daily Vox, the 13-year old student has changed school 3 times. Because of staff disputes and peer bullying. The subject: her hair.
She was [told] that she would not be allowed to write her exam with her hair ‘like this’.
“Other children would laugh at her and say, ‘Oh my god, your hair looks like a cabbage’.. She’d cry everyday when I picked her up from school.”, Amira said. “She’d get home and cry because of how she was treated because of her hair, and say that the school said her hair is a distraction and called it exotic.” Zulaikha has even been in detention for it.
Last week Friday, 26th August, students of Pretoria Girls High School came together, united against cultural shaming and racist remarks of their school staff and self-defined ‘school rules’. The girls dressed in black garments and doeks- traditional wrapped headwear. Intending to begin a dialogue with staff, the girls were instead met with prejudiced and unsolicited intimidating behaviour.
Malaika Eyoh reported for the Daily Vox that security guards patrolled outside the assembly and singled out girls wearing ANC doeks, taking them to the principal where they were told their headwear was ‘politically motivated’. Girls gathered in groups were told to disperse as they were suspected of ‘conspiring’. Teachers told learners that they felt ‘threatened and scared’ by the girls’ clothing. This in itself is problematic that blackness should be linked to violence and intimidation. It is shocking that the girls were disbanded when talking in groups, and downright reminiscent of Apartheid, where black people were prohibited to have gatherings over a certain amount of people for many reasons but mainly to prevent political uprisings.
What brought these girls to action? Malaika describes a few incidents of racism and discriminatory staff ‘rules’ and remarks, but it is clear these are simply just for examples-sake with many others just like them.
She tells of a student who was refused entry into an exam room until she had ‘fixed her hair’. “With nothing to fix, she entered the exam.”, Malaika says. “She was further told by a staff member that she would not be allowed to write her exam with her hair ‘like this’.”
A grade 11 student was told by a teacher to “‘comb your hair, it looks terrible’. When the student combed her hair, the teacher was further disappointed that only the length of the hair had changed and not the texture. This same student has had her hair referred to as ‘kaffir hair’ by two separate staff members.”
Two students conversing in Xhosa, while the rest of the class spoke in English or Afrikaans were “singled out [and asked to] “stop making those funny noises” because it was making her uncomfortable.. This same staff member has also referred to dreadlocks as “dirty old braids.”
“It is inspiring, it is disarming, it is terrifying.”
Students at the hostel have been refused dinner until doeks have been removed and hair combed with “dirty combs pulled from old storage boxes”.
These incidents do not span a few years, they are weekly happenings, and there are more. Mishka Wazar wrote for the Daily Vox, ” [PHSG] has numerous unnecessary and indirectly racist (not to mention sexist, homophobic and transphobic) rules regarding hair, clothing and religious and cultural ornaments.”
Having had no constructive conversation or conclusion met, the girls decided to hold a silent protest the next day at the school’s annual spring fair. On the day they met at the netball court and walked together holding hands to the front of the school. “Before the group could get a head start, the security guards shut the gates”, Malaika reports “forcefully pushing girls backwards and reporting the procession as a ‘snaakse groep’.” When the gates were opened the girls were “met with a police car, extra security force [and K9 units] and members of the governing body (others report parents involved) threatening to arrest girls as young as 14.”
A presenter on Metro FM commented that the girls did not look like matric students, and they are not, says Malaika. It’s not about the matrics- “It’s about the girls who have years left at the school and deserve the chance to figure out who they are without harassment and fear. They don’t need to wait until they’re 18 to start seeing the value in themselves.”
“The frustration and helplessness that these students feel are not limited to this school. The attitude of South African schools, in particular former Model-C schools, and indeed the South African education system as a whole, is racist and steeped in coloniality and imperialism.”, writes Mishka.
“The constant policing of the clothing, hair, bodies and behaviour [takes] its toll on the psyche of young girls..”
She continues: “The recent efforts to decolonise the tertiary education sector seems to have trickled down into high school.. It is inspiring, it is disarming, it is terrifying. The powers that be within all structures are continuing to bar changes. We see this with the increasing number of interdicts being placed on universities such as UCKAR, and the use of police violence and shooting at universities such as WSU.”
“The constant policing of the clothing, hair, bodies and behaviour of women of colour takes its toll on the psyche of young girls, who must begin to unlearn and recover from their education in the tertiary sector.”
A petition has been started and is sitting on 17 500 names- 2500 short of the 20 000 needed. Addressed to MEC of Education Panyaza Lesufi and PGHS hadmistress, Mrs K du Toit, the petition asks that:
- The school’s code of conduct does not discriminate against Black and Muslim girls;
- Disciplinary action against teachers and other staff members implementing any racist policy and/or racist actions
- Protection for the learners who protested to ensure they will not be victimised.
Black students should be able to learn without “being burdened with having to assert their humanity.”
Times Live reports that on Monday, 30th August, Lesufi went to the school to investigate and discuss the issue. Lusufi promised support on the issue saying, “I’m truly sorry and I can assure you that it ends here. You have my support and I will protect you. Your pain will never again continue for as long as I’m still the MEC in this province.”