A racial debate arose at Pretoria High School for Girls High (PHSG) after a group of black pupils protested against stipulations in the disciplinary code of the school which regulate the appearance of black pupils’ hair on Monday 29 August. Pictures and videos emerged on social media of school girls protesting against school rules that prevented the girls from wearing their hair in traditional African styles.

According to a report by IOL titled “Racism fury at Pretoria Girls High: MEC steps in” published on 30 August, in the week of 22 August a pupil at PHSG presented an assignment highlighting systemic inequality in South Africa. The pupil was subsequently taken to the principal’s office and threatened with suspension. On 28 August, at the school’s spring fair, black pupils at the school marched in protest of alleged institutionalised racism and discrimination at the school. From this protest a video emerged on social media of security personnel threatening to arrest the pupils. The pupils are further protesting against allegedly being targeted when in groups of two or more, and allegedly being prevented from being able to speak in their home language among their peers.

On 29 August, pupils at PHSG began protesting at the school during their break period. Students from UP, parents and former pupils of the school stood outside the gates of the school in a display of solidarity with the girls. Gauteng education MEC Panyaza Lesufi went to the school and spoke to the girls, allowing them to raise their concerns. Lesufi suspended the code of conduct of the school that dealt with hairstyles and instructed the school’s governing body to draft a new code of conduct. Lesufi said of the code of conduct changes, “There will be no learner that will be victimised purely because of their hairstyle until the school governing body [has] finalised a new code of conduct that deals specifically with this issue.” Lesufi also launched an independent investigation into staff members accused of racism. Any subsequent forms of protest have also been banned by Lesufi. In an article titled “ Lesufi suspends Pretoria school’s code of conduct”, published on 30 August, EWN reported that Lesufi had said that legally binding action would be taken against PHSG management regarding instances where pupils had been hurt by the policies against their natural hair.

At the opening address of a roundtable discussion on the legacy of black image held on 29 August, Susan Shabangu, Minister of Women in the Presidency, said that the hair policy at Pretoria High School for Girls is racist and seeks to erode the identity of black pupils. In an article titled “Susan Shabangu: Hair policy at PTA High School for Girls ‘racist’” published on 29 August, EWN reported Shabangu as saying, “It becomes an issue which takes us back, but also an issue which in our education system, it once more reminds us that there’s an intention to erode the reality and identity of a black child in South Africa.”

A similar issue was raised at Lawson Brown High School in Port Elizabeth. IOL reported in an article titled “PE school in ethnic hair racism row”, published on 30 August, that matric pupils at the school were allegedly told that they would not be allowed to write their trial exams if they had braids or afro hairstyles. Pupils protested by lying down in the street in front of the school, then moved to the school hall where they demanded apologies from the principal and teachers for alleged racist comments made about their hair. The principal of the school apologised to the pupils and said that the stipulations in the school code of conduct about hair would be changed.

Photo: Fezekile Msimang

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