White Schools vs. Black Hair in Post-Apartheid South Africa

I was too young — barely old enough to have had a full head of hair for two years — to remember the African National Congress’s 1994 election campaign poster depicting a smiling, grandfatherly Nelson Mandela, surrounded by a group of children of all races. This picture of Tata Madiba, South Africans’ term of endearment for Mr. Mandela, was appropriate for the Rainbow Nation he was hoping to preside over. The mastermind behind the election effort was the Clinton presidential campaign consultant Stan Greenberg, who advised the A.N.C. to abandon its image as a liberation movement and adopt a new role as “change agents.”

The promise held in Tata’s smile was that the Rainbow Nation would offer a brighter future for South Africa’s children, the generation that became known as “bornfrees.” For many black “bornfrees” and their parents, the principal path to this promise was to enroll in private schools and former “Model C” schools (as historically white public schools were known). This process of integration had begun even in apartheid’s dying days, but it sped up once the Rainbow Nation was inaugurated.

White Schools vs. Black Hair in Post-Apartheid South AfricaToday, 22 years later, it is those same bornfrees who have become most critical of Mr. Mandela’s Rainbow Nation. The criticism is not just words; it gave rise to the “Fallist” movement that began about two years ago with the #RhodesMustFall campaign to purge historically white campuses like the Universities of Cape Town and the Witwatersrand of colonial symbols, and to modernize curriculums and diversify staffs. Since then, the movement has broadened its focus to tuition and funding. The current wave of #FeesMustFall protests, driven by black students’ demand for a “free quality decolonized education,” has shut down a majority of the country’s universities for more than two weeks.

It’s no accident that education has become such a source of tension. The logic of the negotiated settlement that produced the Rainbow Nation could be summed up as “add blacks and stir.” This is why black parents will do their best to ensure that their children have access to historically white schools.

Toward the end of 1997, the year before I was to go to “big school,” I asked my mother, “Mama, at big school next year, can they call me Gloria?” Gloria is my second name. My mother looked at me, a little confused, and simply said: “No. Your name is Panashe, so they will call you that.”

Without the words to explain why I preferred Gloria, I went along with the name that had been so badly mangled by my white teachers at my predominantly white preschool: Instead of the straightforward pronunciation (Puh-nah-SHEH), I heard everything from Pinashe to Panache to Spinasie. At age 6, I had already begun the dance that many black people have come to know very well in our “post-apartheid” South Africa, where white people control social and economic institutions despite black majority rule. Our names are just one more thing we have to battle over as we try to find our way around places that don’t really accommodate our identities.

The Pretoria High School for Girls made headlines recently when black students protested their teachers’ snide remarks about their “untidy” hair. Under the hashtag banner #StopRacismatPretoriaGirlsHigh, they demanded the right to wear their hair in natural styles like Afros.

Hair is, of course, a focus of rules at all schools, regardless of race. But there is an additional, racialized dimension to these rules. The way hair regulations are generally written — the pupil will have “hair that falls” and “hair that is neat” — assumes that the student is a white child. Hair that does not naturally comply with these directives must be made to do so.

In my case, I mostly obeyed these anti-black hair codes via an assortment of relaxers, braids and weaves. At the time, this did not feel particularly coercive because I bought into South African society’s vision of ideal hair as “the straighter, the better.” In the corporate world, “professional hair” is code for “neat” relaxed and woven styles over “uncouth” Afros and dreadlocks.

Today’s anti-black hair policies have a precedent in apartheid South Africa’s infamous “pencil test.” This was an important tool in the enforcement of the Population Registration Act of 1950, which classified people according to “racial characteristics” into four broad groupings: white, black, colored or Indian. Besides other subjective measures, whether someone’s hair would hold a pencil in place or let it fall through would help to place that person in apartheid’s racial hierarchy. Whether you had “white hair” or “black hair” thus determined access to all kinds of resources and opportunities.

More than 60 years after that legislation, schools in South Africa are still using a de facto form of the pencil test to classify natural black hair as untidy or exotic, and thereby exclude noncompliant black children from academic opportunities. There have been numerous reports of black students being barred from examinations, suspended and even expelled because of their “untidy” hair. Among the Pretoria High School for Girls protesters, one student had been forced to change schools three times because of her Afro.

The schoolgirls’ protests have taken inspiration in part from internationally recognized campaigns like #BlackLivesMatter, #RhodesMustFall and #FeesMustFall. Alongside the Fallist movement, students at historically black universities like the University of Limpopo and schools like Cape Town’s Philippi Secondary School have long protested the inferior conditions of their institutions. In addition, there’s been a steady wave of protests over the lack of basic services like water and sanitation in black townships. Faced with these demonstrations, the South African public has learned to shrug and dismiss them as “hooliganism.”

It’s only when the disruption spills over into historically white institutions that anyone seems to pay serious political attention. In other words, black protest has an impact only if it dares to challenge the integrationist mythology of the Rainbow Nation.

It wasn’t until my final year at a majority-white private school that I grasped the nature of social experiment I’d been part of. In all my 12 years of schooling, Chinua Achebe’s “Things Fall Apart” was the first work by a black African writer I’d been assigned. Since other books on black history and consciousness had a limited presence on the curriculum, I started seeking them out myself. And that was when I shaved my head: After years of straightening my hair, I symbolically rejected my white socialization in these schools.

If you were to ask me today, some years on, as a member of the Fallist movement, “What is wrong with these schools?” my answer would be that the compromise deal that ended apartheid and the concept of a Rainbow Nation are what’s wrong. Nothing significant was given up by the white minority: These schools, like so much of our social order, have preserved white privilege, without real concessions to majority-black South Africa.

Until we dismantle the continued white domination of post-apartheid South Africa, Mr. Mandela’s children will not find freedom in the Rainbow Nation.

Panashe Chigumadzi, the author of the novel Sweet Medicine and the forthcoming book of essays Beautiful Hair for a Landless People, is the curator of Soweto’s inaugural Abantu Book Festival.

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