A powerful image of a young girl in school uniform standing up to a man with her arms crossed above her head has gone viral on the internet and social media. Her name is Zulaikha Patel. And the image of her defying the policing of black bodies has become iconic. Her actions might have been directed at Pretoria High School for Girls, but her story resonates with many others, writes Tibebeselassie Tigabu from Pretoria, South Africa.
August 27 was one of the biggest days for the Pretoria High School for Girls. It was the highly anticipated Spring Day. This day involves foodstalls, a funfair, battle of the chefs’ competition, and a book fair, among other events.
However, for the black and colored students, it was not a usual spring day; rather, it was a day when they decided to march against the racist hair policy of the school.
According to an Instagram video, which went viral on other social media sites, white security officers and parents, who have taken security roles, confronted the furious students who were marching.
The security officers threatened the schoolgirls with arrest, and the response from the young girls was, “Arrest us all! If you are going to arrest us, arrest us all!”
Zulaikha Patel, a 13-year-old girl with a big afro hair, who became the face of the movement, confronted the security officer by crossing her hands on air and saying “arrest us all”. The grievances of the black girls emanates from policies which ranges from being forced to chemically relax and straighten their hair to being barred in speaking in their mother tongue.
The black students, who wore their hair naturally with styles such as afro, braids, Bantu knots and cornrows were belittled and insulted. Those with afro hair were called with names such as “bird nests” and “static hair”. In order to escape from the belittling, humiliating insults and mocking, they relaxed their hair and straightened it.
After the video was uploaded online, the issue blew up on social media and the #StopRacismAtPretoriaGirlsHigh hashtag started trending with more than 150,000 tweets on Twitter. This huge outcry on social media was also reported by mainstream media outlets such as Aljazeera, The Guardian, BBC, CNN, and The Daily Maverick. In those platforms many questioned how this happened in post-apartheid South Africa and in a country whose major population is black.
This situation led officials such as South African Arts and Culture Minister Nathi Mthethewa to pledged solidarity with the students on Twitter. “Let us continue to assert our Africanness in all spaces so that we can breathe and be truly and fully ourselves,” he wrote. Similarly, US ambassador to South Africa Patrick Gaspard tweeted: “All societies have rules. And sometimes those rules are biased and need to be exposed and protested.”
Political parties jumped on the issue with the African National Congress Women’s League and Democratic Alliance and the Economic Freedom Fighters issuing statements denouncing the white supremacy of the alleged policy. Many of the students came forward expressing their tormenting experiences tearfully to Panyaza Lesufi, Gauteng Member of the Executive Council for Education. They said that they were called monkeys by a teacher and were called kafir (a derogatory term for black). They also said that they were pulled out of class and given Vaseline to flatten her hair and a teacher referred to Nelson Mandela and the ANC as terrorists.
Panyaza Lesufi interfered and this resulted in the suspension of the code of conduct that specifically deals with hairstyles following allegations of racist practices.
This case is not specific to one school. In fact, many schools joined the movement and protested against racist hair and language policy of schools, which is believed to be an apartheid era legacy. For instance, another school called Parktown Girls High amended the hair policy following racism claims at Pretoria School.
The end of apartheid marked the culmination of three hundred years of severe oppression, brutal killings, segregation and white supremacy. A new hope and new leadership was conceived. Nelson Mandela, a man who was once considered to be a terrorist and a revolutionary, attired in his black, brown and gold shirt symbolizing his ideals of embracing all colors, skin and hair texture became the new face of “the rainbow nation”. With the notion of new hopes, dreams and better destiny for black Africans, a new generation known as “born free” emerged.
Thandolwethu Maseko, a 26-year-old South African who works in an international firm as a development consultant, considers herself as born free since childhood. With the end of apartheid the young woman thought things will change dramatically. Specifically, she thought that racism will vanish since there was this certainty that white children born after 1994 are cleansed of the entrenched and systemic white privilege. On the other hand, many predicted that the disempowerment and dispossession of black people would end dramatically. However, this seems far from the truth.
Achile Mbeme, head of Wits Institute for Social and Economic research at the University of Witwatersrand, in his paper entitled “Apartheid Futures and the Limits of Reconciliation” argues that black South Africans still command less than 10 percent of the national economy and white South Africans still occupy 75 percent of the management posts in the country.
With this bright dream, schools that were only exclusive to white people started registering black children. These schools, which are called Model C schools, are government schools that are administered and largely funded by a governing body of parents and alumni. Some of the country’s best schools fall into this category.
Maseko‘s parents wanted her to get good education so they enrolled her into Eunice Girls High in Bloemfontein in Johannesburg. Though the idea of the school was multi-racial, the school prohibited communicating in Xhosa, Zulu or any of the black languages. Maseko says that they were ridiculed for their accent and hair, and their intelligence was questioned. Looking back, she says that the ingrained racism forced many of the students to “assimilate with white values and cultures” such as chemically relaxing their hair, straightening and disregarding anything “African”. “We were mocked because of our songs; so we left our singing. We were considered to be too loud. Our skin is too dark, our lips are too thick and our every existence was wrong. But we were silent about that,” Maseko says.
“Self love” was a long journey for her and that started with her hair. Growing her natural hair was not easy at first, especially in the corporate world. “It was considered to be untidy, unprofessional and primitive,” she says. In due course, she fought the glances and some of the comments and kept her dreadlock.
In fact, this is not peculiar to South Africa. In the American military, hairstyles such as afros, dreadlocks, two-strand twists, cornrows or other natural hair styles were prohibited in army regulation 670-1 “Wear and appearance of Army Uniforms and Insignia”. In 2014 the US military rolled back prohibitions on black hairstyles within its ranks, following months of fierce backlash.
For black people, having natural hair is not merely about hairstyle; rather, it is political and a point of struggle. Scientific racism and physical anthropology played a big role in defining racial inferiority. Physical features like skin color, hair type and texture and facial shape used to determine the supremacy of one race over another.
This propaganda of scientific racism played a big role in establishing apartheid in South Africa. In South Africa, white scientists like Dudley Kidd, who published “The Essential Kafir” in 1904, suggested that black Africans were overgrown children. In addition to the psychological impacts, this created oppressed people, who adhere to externally derived standards of beauty. That led many black people to dislike their skin color or texture.
Women like Margaret Deyi, 50, a human resources practitioner at Witwatersrand University understand the struggle for affirmation of black skin and kinky hair. “My hair is my identity. It represents who I am as a black person and I accept who I am,” Deyi says.
For her wearing extensions, relaxing and weaves are all questionable acts of identity. “They are in conflict with who they are. They are not accepting how they are created,” Deyi says.
For her wearing extension is associated with being black in South Africa during apartheid period. Blacks during those times were inferiors. According to the classification of race the top race was white followed by Indians, colored and finally black. Hair played a very important role in determining racial classification.
The pencil test was a method of assessing whether a person has Afro textured hair. In the pencil test, a pencil is pushed through the person’s hair and how easily it comes out determines whether the person has passed or failed the test.
Deyi says that many black women tried to assimilate and wanted to pass as colored by wearing hair extensions. “Many lighter-skinned black people used to wear extensions so they can pass as colored which puts one in a better position than being taken as black,” she says.
Growing up in apartheid South Africa, she did not try to relax her hair or wear extensions. She says that she was an afro-haired woman and is still fond of that style. She says that she has not pressured her children, but they want to relax and straighten their hair. “It’s a personal journey. They have to find their own path. They found it and now one is a dreadlock,” Deyi says.
Though she strongly persists in keeping her natural hair when going to corporate events, she says that it is not easy because some consider her as being unique. “I feel like a naked person when I face many black women with weaves and extensions. Many wanted to be accepted as sophisticated and evolved. But the question is this evolved from what? Blackness? Oh no! I will always stay black,” she says.
Human hair is also one of the lucrative businesses in Africa. According to estimates, the business of wigs and hair extensions is worth over six billion dollars a year and is growing quite rapidly. However, this seems to be changing in the current reality of South Africa. Natural hair is now having a moment in South Africa. Natural black hair has finally infiltrated the mainstream belief resisting cultural and beauty assimilation based on Eurocentric ideas. Many hair salons, which promote various natural hairstyles, are mushrooming.
“People are redefining themselves and their identity and hair seems to be one of the center points. Black people are saying that they are satisfied. The struggle is different and being content with natural hair is one of the statements,” Deyi says.
The powerful image of Zulaikha Patel and her big afro is a sign of hope for Deyi. Mireyo Mutshotsho, a designer in her thirties, finds the current protest of the high school girls “disturbing”. “After all these years and in the post-apartheid period, white people still have issues with our hair,” she says, adding that she is very proud of the students for standing up for their rights.
A woman with a versatile hairstyle of cornrows and afro, she does not want to be predictable and changes her natural hairstyle with various outfits. Though she sees her hair as part of her identity, it was not always the case. She went to black schools and the negativity and tainting of black hair was the dominating image growing up. “Our hair is referred to as “kafir” and they made me believe that there was something wrong with my hair,” Mutshotsho says.
Though hair has become political and is part of one’s identity, for Londiwe Langa, making a statement with hair is an exhausting process. Londiwe is also like Mireyo when it comes to having versatile hairstyle.
Though many have now transformed and are comfortable with their natural hair, for Langa, having a medical doctor father who understood the downside of relaxers was fortunate. According to studies, using chemical relaxers has adverse effects such as scalp irritation, chemical burn and other health complications. She kept her natural hair but did not pass from uncomfortable gazes from here and there. According to Langa, many had to relax their hair so as to fit a certain standard and what is a sad thing is that the policing and imposition continued in these “integrated schools”. “These children are pressured to use chemical relaxers which is life threatening. It is dismissive of black identity and we just need to call it racist,” she says, adding that most of the insults from the school officials were improper. “This rhetoric is a layered racist comment depicting backwardness and primitiveness,” Langa says. She also believes that the structural legacy of apartheid and its impacts on the social fabric is still internalized among many black South Africans. According to her, without even being conscious about “anti-blackness” values many fall into a trap of self-inflicting hate. One of those moments for her was when she relaxed her hair in high school. “Sometimes one is not aware of the consumption of information and beauty standards and one might be immersed by those subliminal messages. That was the time I decided to relax my hair,” Langa says.
Maseko also believes that with hair protests, the remnants of apartheid must fall. “[Cecil] Rhodes must fall and this is a new chapter of a new struggle which is inspired by the black consciousness philosophy which is gaining most of its support in the secondary schools and universities,” she says.