South Africa’s experiment in racially integrated schools recently hit rough seas. A set of rules for hair styles at the prestigious and private Pretoria High School for Girls unleashed a “school hair storm,” according to a headline on the front page of the Johannesburg Star. Adolescent black girls ran from the school’s classical building screaming, “We are tired! We are tired!”
But what were they tired of? Their beautiful school with its earnest, white, mostly Afrikaner staff who care about their 100-percent pass rate, neatness, etiquette, decorum and not having hair in one’s face? Or was it “whiteness” in general? Were they “tired” of the burden of ringing bells, timetables, exams, grades–what the radical leftist philosopher Michel Foucault called the “disciplinary regime” of European man?
In this case, the problem was that two girls were asked to tame their afros. One, a mixed-race Indian-Zulu girl, Zulaikha Patel, became the face of victimization. South Africa’s left-liberal media, especially the talk station Radio 702, accused the school and its headmistress of the dreaded R-word.
According to parents and insiders at the school, the headmistress and the teachers are at a loss to understand the media furor; they are dismayed that even British newspapers such as the Guardian have run stories about it. But the publicity was not an accident. It was later discovered that the two 13-year-old “Afro hair rebels” had at least one professional PR firm managing their media campaign against the white teaching staff, a corporation named “PR Powerhouse.”
What no one seemed to realize is that the problem with Zulaikha Patel’s hair was very simple: Anyone sitting behind her could not see the teacher or the blackboard. However, our provincial minister of education, the meddlesome Panyaza Lesufi, sprang into action. He called an emergency, anti-racist “hair meeting” at the school to grill the white headmistress and teachers. The dress code of Pretoria Girls High was suspended by fiat, even though school governing bodies are supposed to make rules for each school.
Minister Lesufi is very concerned about “racism.” He has been known to berate kindergarten teachers if black children suffer imagined slights–such as sitting at a table or on a bus for a few minutes without white companions. A local black columnist, Khaya Dlanga, lamented that “many of these previously white-only schools have, for the most part, only white teachers. All figures of authority are white. The black staff are janitors, security guards, or cleaners. Some children go through entire school careers never ever having been taught by a black teacher.”
Even the United States ambassador to South Africa, Congolese-born Patrick Gaspard, weighed in on the controversy:
As African American I’m utterly fascinated by the Twitter debate about “black hair” protest in Pretoria. I’ve lived this cultural divide.
— Ambassador Gaspard (@patrickgaspard) August 29, 2016
If one examines the now-abolished hairstyle policy at Pretoria Girls High, it is clear that it was strict.
To Americans and Europeans, unaccustomed to the British tradition of school uniforms that has taken root in South Africa, Australia, and other ex-colonies, such prescriptions may seem draconian, but parents like them. There are many advantages to school uniforms. They are less expensive than regular, fashionable clothing for teenagers. Poor children dress exactly rich children. South African blacks–who are inveterate imitators of white customs–take pride in school uniforms, too. The richest man in South Africa, Christo Wiese, an Afrikaner retail magnate, first made money by selling cheap school uniforms to millions of black parents.
Needless to say, the yuppie black parents with highly-paid affirmative-action jobs in government or big corporations stand in line for hours to enroll their children in schools such as Pretoria Girls High. Even the country’s Minister of Basic Education, Angie Motshekga, who is black, told the SABC (South African Broadcasting Corporation) that there was “nothing controversial” about the rules at Pretoria Girls High, and even referred dismissively to the “mixed breed’s Afro.” Any white person who uttered these words would be dismissed hysterically. “If you look at those rules you can see that they are standard rules that you find in most codes of conduct,” she said.
The student body at Pretoria High is reportedly about 35 percent black, so it is still a majority-white school, but probably not for long. It is in “old Pretoria,” near the university and city centre. Like in many American cities, white flight has left the downtown completely black; demographic pressures is bound to make it all-black, with the current controversy adding fuel to the fire.
Instead of trying to fix the public schools in black areas, where drunken or absentee teachers, grades for sexual favors, and even rape are not uncommon, the education department focuses on the white-run schools that inadvertently transgress PC dogma.
In the aftermath of the Pretoria High controversy, further reports appeared in the international press, including the Washington Post, mostly accusing the white teaching staff of racism. In South Africa, there has been a bandwagon effect with girls in schools as far afield as Cape Town and Durban suddenly angry about appearance rules.
A black pupil at Sans Souci High School for Girls in Newlands, Cape Town, claimed that “I had to cut it [my hair] and burn my scalp just to get it straight and fit the perfect image of a ‘proper Sans Souci girl.’ ” Along the East Coast of South Africa, the KwaZulu-Natal education department sent a posse of officials to investigate Queensburgh Girls’ High, near Durban, after allegations that black pupils were not told not to play indigenous games and to cut their hair because it “looked messy.”
And this is in addition to the steady drumbeat of the usual accusations: One black girl at the Kwazulu-Natal school accused her English teacher of being “racist” because she had criticized the black practice of “lobola” whereby brides are sold for cattle. “She wants us to think like her, she is always putting us down,” she said.
The schools controversy prompted black activist Khaya Dlanga to say that “this is why black-owned and controlled private schools are the way forward.” We have seen this kind of separatist sentiment in the United States as well. Does it mean we have come full circle? Are blacks now suggesting that some form of enlightened segregation is the only way out of the nightmare of racial issues that make headlines every week?
South Africa continues to slouch towards the “non-racial” ideal stated in the preamble to its 1996 Constitution–a notion that appears more bizarre and unattainable every day.