The month of September has seen protests at South African girls' high schools regarding codes of conduct spreading like wildfire across the country. The spark to the movement, so to speak, was a protest in South Africa's political capital, at Pretoria High School for Girls, when in late August black girl pupils staged a demonstration against repeatedly being forced by teachers to 'tame' their natural hair. The now iconic image of thirteen year old Zulaikha Patel raising her fists in defiance has become a symbol of resistance against classroom racial prejudice, as has her spectacular afro hairstyle, captivating media both across the country and internationally. The incident incited similar protests in schools in several of the country's major metropolis, as school goers across South Africa protested in solidarity.
Zulaikha and her classmates were protesting against a system that constructed a social norm which dictated that hair could not be allowed to remain in its natural state. Girls were required to force their hair into braids or corn rows, or rinse them in a cheap solution of strong chemicals known as 'relaxants' which temporarily straightened their hair, but was irreparably damaging. That their mothers before them had done so without question, only made the stand against such practices a braver act of defiance. This is not the first time that the afro has been raised as a symbol of black consciousness; it was first made famous in the 1960's amongst politically active African-Americans during the US civil rights movement, when norms of the time also dictated that black girls should straighten their hair to prevent social ostracisation.
Mirroring this, half a century later, several of the South African school girls interviewed revealed, in addition to derogatory comments regarding their hair, a far more sinister picture of racially based abuse in the classroom. Girls were reprimanded for conversing amongst themselves in indigenous mother tongues rather than English and Afrikaans, the traditionally white languages of South Africa. The girls were forced to erase their cultural heritage in order to conform to perceived school policy. The psychological damage that this has on an individual level in the forced denial of self, quite aside from the identity crisis it visits on the collective national psyche, is significant, and its full effects will only be realised in years to come.
A handful of cynics have put the furore down to teenaged angst at being forced to conform to school rules, pointing out that it is a de facto rite of passage to be subjected to the pedants that draw up school grooming regulations. Particularly in the wake of the #RhodesMustFall and #FeesMustFall movements of 2015 that swept through South Africa’s universities, the skeptics argue that this is an attempt of school goers to jump on the bandwagon of racialising their discontent. Such an argument misses the point entirely.
Panyaza Lesufi, the Gauteng province Member of the Executive for Education has since visited the Pretoria school and suspended the offending hair policy. Political parties from across the ideological spectrum have weighed in on the protest, elevating it to a national debate. However, official statements made for media opportunities and political brownie points risk hijacking an issue that needs to be addressed.
Lest we forget, on 16 June 1976, black South African youths rose up in protest at being forced to learn Afrikaans, a language closely associated with Apartheid in their schools. Thirty years on this year, and the next generation is still being castigated for speaking languages other English and Afrikaans and are being marginalised for the natural state of their hair, a very direct form of cultural suppression. Thus, twenty two years after democratic transition, South Africa’s youth are at crossroads, because for them, not much has changed. In addition, to grapple with a cultural identity crisis, many are still struggling to grasp the opportunities they were told await them, having inherited economic disadvantage from their parents.
Many still dismiss the ongoing youth protests in South Africa as the brashness of youth on a rampage at the slightest provocation. This may be true in some cases, but what is crucial here is not the need to decry the state of the youth today, but to acknowledge, that, the upcoming generation has lost faith in the ability of the political system to understand and address their grievances. They have resorted to disruption, and at times violence, because they believe there is no other way to be heard. If other means of communication are not perceived to be effective in capturing the attention of either their government or society as large, it means the binding social contract no longer holds fort. It is dangerous territory indeed.
There may have been a time when amending the schools' code of conduct to reflect the cultural and ethnical diversity of South Africa’s youth might have been enough to keep the peace, but to do so now would clearly be too little, and that too late.
At the very least, South Africans across the board need to acknowledge the ongoing discrimination present in the country’s society, and the perceived imperviousness to it of those in power, despite the ostensible use of broad based black economic empowerment policies to address historical social injustices.
Development economists speak of the demographic dividend, that will boost the economic growth of emerging economies. However, a rising tide of anger at the suppression of cultural identity and expression, coupled with bleak economic prospects given South Africa’s high unemployment rate and anemic growth paints a precarious picture for the future of Africa’s largest economy.
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