On Sunday, the 28th of August, I arrived in Brussels from a month-long trip to my home-town Pretoria. That evening, as I was scrolling through my various social media timelines, I came across a short video clip of a young black girl in the green tunic and navy blue blazer that I wore as a teenager at the Pretoria High School for Girls. Her face seemed to bear the anguish and frustration of simultaneously being seen and unseen.
As I came to understand, young black girls, as young as 13 years old, had come out in protest of the School’s policies on “general appearance”, the ways in which their educators punished them for wearing their hair in the splendour of their kinks and coils, for speaking their mother tongues, and for gathering in groups. This story has engulfed the nation and has led to many “old girls” (alumnae of the School) and others to mobilise, pen articles, and voice their views on local radio (see statement from alumnae). The protest also resulted in meetings between the provincial Department of Education and the School, and the young protestors, to discuss the rules of conduct and how they are implemented. Among the Department’s findings were that:
“1. Use of African languages on the school premises is not tolerated, yet the other [students] are allowed to express themselves in Afrikaans [Afrikaans is an official language in the country, but this grievance is presented in the context of some girls being given the freedom to express themselves in their mother tongue, while the same is not extended to others]
- Students feel that they are not allowed to wear Black hairstyles, such as [an] afro. Specifically, the school policy limits the length of the hairstyle, and this is arbitrarily interpreted by the educators.
- Racial abuse and victimisation by both white educators and white students, in particular the use of terms such as monkeys, kaffir [South African slur for “black”] […]”
We can deduce that these young girls’ grievances at this particular Model-C school – a former white-only government school classification that should have been made more inclusive post-apartheid – is part of a wider societal malaise. The wider societal ill is the fact that a singular identity is normalised, while other ways of being are subject to ridicule, unwarranted discipline and racism. The attention on how black “natural hair” is subject to scrutiny based on its comparison to “normalised” straight hair has been much debated and discussed locally. However, it is only one manifestation of being told you do not belong. It is only one way in which we have been told to assimilate and minimise ourselves. As many have pointed out already, the girls should not be trotted out as courageous lionesses, stripped of their girlhood. The protests, and the deeper question of how our institutions silence black girlhood, and the types of girls we revere at the expense of others, represent an indictment on our society for not nurturing safe spaces for all young girls.
The protest could be viewed as an indictment on the country’s 22-year old democracy, and the failure to provide spaces for learning that celebrate different iterations of girlhood, than the stifling racism of assimilation. We have come to know that in these spaces, when contempt for your appearance is voiced, that it is in fact, contempt for your existence. This is not unique to South Africa, but it is a global phenomenon, not least in an “advanced” Europe, that is wrestling with the presence of people of colour, the history they represent and the disruptions they cause to dominant ways of knowing and being. The protests and the multitudes of issues that these girls bring to the fore have attracted international attention and lead to many girls and women, to share similar experiences in other parts of the globe. But now, I am sharing mine.
by Zama Nkosi
Zama Nkosi is a South African national, working on EU-South Africa trade and investment in Brussels, Belgium and a member of the ACP YPN.