Students at Pretoria High School for Girls in South Africa are taking a stand against racism.
After being told by school officials to chemically straighten their natural hair, girls with Afros and braids gathered together last weekend to protest the rule and defend their black individuality, and their actions are inspiring an important change.
Pretoria Girls High School, which was founded in 1902, only allowed white students to attend until the end of the apartheid the system of racial segregation in South Africa in 1994. Despite the official end of the apartheid 22 years ago, the school is still run by mostly white administrators and racism remains a serious issue in the area.
For years, black female students say they have been pressured and encouraged by school officials to change their natural appearance by means of chemically straightening their hair.
The school’s Code of Conduct, published online by 702 Radio in South Africa, states all hair must be brushed, conservative, neat and keeping with the school uniform. It does not state an Afro is not acceptable, but students have told the local education department they have been advised of this by the teachers at the school.
“Learners feel that they are not allowed to wear Black hairstyles, such as Afro. Specifically, the school policy limits the length of the hairstyle, and this is arbitrarily interpreted by the educators,” a statement posted on Facebook by the noted.
“The learners feel that educators use abusive and demeaning language when they address them regarding their hairstyles. For instance some educators tell them they look like monkeys, or have nests on their heads.”
Over the weekend, powerful photos of students protesting the racist request were shared on Twitter with the hashtag #StopRacismAtPretoriaGirlsHigh, and the girls have received an immense amount of support.
In a radio interview with PRI, Tiisetso Phetla, a Pretoria High School alumni, shed some light on the chemical straightening “rule” and what a serious impact it has on the daily lives of Pretoria High students. Though Phetla graduated from the school in 2014,she claimed that the unwritten rule is still verbally enforced at the school to this day.
Phetla recalled the difficultly of her own experience attending the school as a young girl with an Afro. “I got accepted to the school thinking that it was okay to have an Afro, because they give you a code of conduct to read and sign, and there is nothing with regards to African hair or an Afro in the code of conduct, she said.
Though nothing in the code of conduct explicitly discouraged her Afro, when she arrived at the school, she was confronted about her appearance by administrators. “When I got there I was told that I looked very untidy and looked as if I wasnt part of the school uniform,” she told PRI.
In the radio interview, Phetla said that the school’s staff would remind her every day to chemically straighten her hair, saying if students did not straighten or braid their hair had to skip class and report to detention. Despite the constant harassment to straighten her hair, Phetla refused. “If I use chemicals on my hair, my scalp gets extremely damaged it really burns, she said.
According to PRI, appearances aren’t the only things scrutinized at the school. Many protesters also called attention to the school’s language policy, which prohibits South Africans from speaking their native language. “Children that are Afrikaans, German or Spanish are allowed to speak their native tongues, but we South Africans are not allowed to speak our African native tongues,” Phetla said.
“They’re taking away our black heritage. The question is: if we cannot be black in school, where can we be black? Its a school in Africa, why are we not allowed to be black in Africa? Where can we be black if we cant be black in Africa?”
The education department advised for this behavior to immediately cease. “The mocking of African learners’ usage of their mother tongue must stop,” it wrote on Facebook. “In fact, the diverse use of languages (especially African languages) must be encouraged for all learners at the school.”
My daughter has an Afro. It’s the only way she wears her hair. Would she not be allowed at PTA girls?
Mmusi Maimane (@MmusiMaimane) August 29, 2016
Thanks to the brave students at Pretoria High, a petition calling for an end to racism at the school has already gathered close to 30,000 signatures. Their call for change has officially been heard and rules regarding their hair have been suspended, the wrote on Facebook.
It has also advised an investigation into the school will be conducted by an independent party and a new code of conduct introduced that represents all students at the school.