When I heard that pupils at Pretoria Girls’ High School were being subjected to racism and told to suppress their ‘blackness’, I felt a sense of sadness and despair.
The young students claimed African hairstyles such as afros, bantu knots, dreadlocks and braids were banned while chemically straighten hair was deemed as acceptable.
How can parents teach their children to love themselves and know their self-worth when they are being told otherwise.
The #StopRacismAtPretoriaGirlsHigh was trending on social media on Monday. Videos and photographs of pupils protesting at the school’s annual Spring Fair, despite the presence of heavy security, went viral at the weekend, and so far have been shared 10,000 times and liked 9,956.
The powerful photo and video of 13-year-old Zulaikha Patel standing in front of an officer with her hands folded refusing to back down showed great courage. She could have been arrested but instead spoke on behalf of her fellow school peers
She said: “Take us all. They want to take us prison… take us all.”
It was later revealed she had previously been put in detention and had been rejected by three schools after refusing to conform to their hair policies.
Pretoria Girls’ High, founded in 1902, was all white during apartheid, but since 1990, it has been integrated to all races.
Teachers are meant to be authoritative figures and lead by example by promoting social cohesion. To ensure this happens, schools should enforce blanket dress code policy recognising and embracing the different cultures of their students.
South African Arts and Culture Minister Nathi Mthethwa weighed in on the issue by writing on Twitter:
“To assert our language & hair, is to assert one’s cultural belonging. School must embrace cultural diversity.
“Students should not be used as platform to discourage students from embracing their African identity.”
Education Secretary Gauteng MEC Panyaza Lesufi, visited the school on Monday to investigate the racism allegations as more than 4,500 people signed a petition calling for his invention.
At the time of writing, the petition has now received more than 30,079.signatures.
Lesufi met pupils who claimed they were being victimised by staff. One girl who was involved in the protest over the weekend told him: “I have a natural Afro, but a teacher told me I need to comb my hair because it looks like a birds nest.”
After a meeting with the school’s governing body on Monday‚ Lesufi said a resolution had been reached and all hostilities at the school would cease.
“The element of the code of conduct that deals specifically with hairstyles will be suspended immediately,” he said.
“No pupil would be victimised purely because of their hairstyle until the school governing body has finalised a new code of conduct that deals specifically with these issues,” he added.
“Until the school’s new code of conduct had been introduced‚ schooling would proceed without any hostilities, he said. “The mini-war that was on this campus is immediately suspended. Learners will go back to class. Teachers will teach. There will not be any form of protest.”
Lesufi said this resolution would apply across the province, and all schools’ codes of conduct were under review.
The MEC is appointing an independent body to investigate the allegations and the committee will have 21 days to report its findings.
“None of the learners who reported the prevalence of racial or emotional abuse at this school will be intimidated or be charged‚” he said.
“We are quite aware that the environment here needs serious intervention in terms of race relations‚ cultural understanding and the need to promote social cohesion.”
In this modern world of technology when social media is king and the obsession with self-image has become exacerbated, we should be encouraging children and young people to stay true to themselves and not feel ashamed of their race, culture, gender or sexuality.