A Cautionary Tale: Hands Off Our Afros

In the morning Jessica Van Wyk wakes at 6 AM to get ready for her first day of matric. After showering and drying off her hair, she ties her hair up into a bun, slicks on a bit of foundation to cover her most recent outbreak (thanks to her period), packs her bag, and heads out of the door. In the same neighborhood, Nonhlanhla Mazibuko (whom they call Noni because her name is “too difficult”) repeats the same process. The difference between Nonhlanhla and Jessica is that Nonhlanhla’s hair is totally natural (yes, an afro), devoid of any colorant or chemical, whereas Jessica’s hair has been bleached twice, treated with Brazilian blowout chemicals, and more. In relation to the rules set forth by their high school, Jessica should be found in breach of school regulations regarding hair…except it is Nonhlanhla Mazibuko who is sent to the principal’s office and is later told to “tame” her hair. Between the two students, the noticeable difference is their skin and culture, but when the principal is made aware of this by not only Nonhlanhla, but other students as well as the Mazibuko family, he says “this is not a race issue…these are just the rules”.

To end this short story, eventually Nonhlanhla leaves the school with a bitter taste of white privilege and “ugly black girl” in her mouth. In this story, Nonhlanhla chose the path that worked best for her, which was to leave the school for one that was more inclusive and accepting of black girls in their entirety.


For students like Zulaikha Patel of Pretoria Girls High School (PGHS) in Gauteng, the path that worked best for her was to speak out about what was going on and put unfair dress codes regarding black girls into society’s line of vision. As the hashtag #stopracismatpretoriagirlshigh circulates, with the story of how Zulaikha started a protest against biased school rules in relation to the hair of black students, other black students are speaking out about what they went through during high school regarding how their schools regulated blackness. For many of them, the issue of whether or not their hair was tidy or whether it fit the rules of their schools always came into question. For young girls with afros, it was always a question of ‘Have I combed and tied my hair enough to not get stopped by a teacher today?’ and for young boys the question was ‘Is there enough hair on my head for someone to pinch.’ The fact that regulating the hair of black people in South Africa is a direct legacy of apartheid methods to identify an individual’s race should be proof enough that the protest of discriminatory dress codes in 2016 is necessary. In institutions that promote learning, one would like to imagine that having discussions like these would be welcomed; but in fact, discussions with school administrators about being black are nearly as illicit as being in a “dodgy” (which often just meant ‘black’) place in school uniform.

The issue of what a student’s hair is and is not allowed to be is the tip of the ‘No Blacks Allowed’ attitude of many Model-C or private schools. At schools like St. Mary’s Diocesan School for Girls (DSG), a mere stone’s throw from Pretoria High School for Girls, hair was always a sore subject. What might the difference have been though? Why did no other student, like a pupil of DSG for instance, stand against the discriminatory practices of their high school? It may have been the fact that black parents weren’t willing to get involved in that kind of fight. In black communities, hair is also a sensitive subject. For example, it is not uncommon for a black person to be told at least once in their life that they have “kaffir hare.” This meaning that the person has the hair of a “kaffir”, a derogatory term for black people in South Africa. Worldwide, black women have always been encouraged to straighten their hair, which (let’s be honest) only meets white beauty standards. The hair that grows from the scalp of a black woman does not grow without a curl pattern of some kind, and that is as natural as it gets. Parents who have obviously been made aware of these rules aren’t willing to protest them for various reasons. Some may believe that a black girl’s hair should be straightened. The reason that is most saddening is that many parents would rather their children stick to the rules, never coloring outside of the lines of whiteness, and keep their heads down until they make it through whatever institution they are; an institution that makes them believe that they are “lucky to be here”, when their parents pay taxes and school fees.

The type of rules set forth by schools are biased towards white standards of what “tidy” or “acceptable” looks like; so yes Mr. Principal this is a race issue. While Zulaihka is the first to stand out this publicly in a long time, don’t let her stand alone. To students, who experience the similar transgressions from their schools, protest in whatever way that you can. To parents who send their children to these institutions, hold headmasters accountable for the daily micro-aggressions taking place against your children. Finally, as a cautionary remark to all high schools, private Christian schools especially, shape up or ship out. South African students with unruly hair have had it with your shit.


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