School dress codes already have some of the most inane regulations that some girls in the United States are protesting about. But what if your school had a dress code against your hair or the way you look? Is changing the way you look and dress worth the education? South Africa’s racial issues in the decades after the country became an integrated democracy continue today.
The children in South Africa’s Pretoria High School for Girls face daily criticisms and are harassed by teachers and administrators for wearing their natural hair. Despite the fact that the school has a majority black population, the girls are repeatedly told that their natural hair and many of the natural hairstyles is unprofessional, unruly, and indecent according to the school’s dress code. Even though apartheid ended in 1994, we continue to see remnants of its ideology lingering within South Africa’s white communities – and can be seen through the economic and political disparities.
Pretoria High School for Girls is a prestigious private school in the country’s Gauteng district and was unofficially an all-white institution until apartheid ended. After 1994, the integration of black and white children resulted in a majority black student population with a predominantly white faculty and staff. While the school doesn’t explicitly discriminate against Africans, students state that faculty often make derogatory comments regarding their hair, skin color, and facial features. So not only do these girls get harassed at school, but because it’s a private institution, they are paying the school to be harassed for their looks.
In response to the discrimination, many of the girls rallied a protest outside their institution – which garnered both positive and negative reactions from the community. Photos of the girls caught international attention as people took to Twitter to spread the message and started using the hashtag, #StopRacismAtPretoriaGirlsHigh. However, this isn’t the first instance of racism or discrimination that Africans in South Africa have faced post-apartheid.
In recent years, the so-called ‘rainbow nation’ – a name coined by Archbishop Desmond Tutu after the end of apartheid – has seen an increase in discriminatory sentiments. Instances of racist discrimination arose earlier this year when people started reporting that businesses and establishments in Cape Town refused to serve members of the black community. Of South Africa’s 52 million people, Africans make up 79.2%, white people make up 8.9%, colored people (those that are mixed) make up 8.9%, and Indians/Asians/Others make up the last 3%. However, 70% of the management positions and people in power are made up of white people. It’s painfully ironic that the majority population continue to be the ones who are oppressed and discriminated against in their own country. If you compare the unemployment rates between the two racial groups, Africans are unemployed at more than four times the rate of white South Africans.
The Institute for Justice and Reconciliation released a report that stated that most South Africans don’t interact with members of other racial groups despite being integrated in almost all public spheres. The institute was created in early 2000 as a think-tank organization to help reshape South Africa’s communities and develop projects that would be more inclusive. It has expanded its outreach to help other African nations, such as Zimbabwe, Rwanda, and more recently South Sudan, build peaceful, inclusive societies and maintain fair democracies. But despite the institution’s work, South Africa’s failure in embracing its diverse groups of people has manifested itself into a divided country. This comes as a shock for the ‘rainbow nation’ that once dismantled apartheid and established a functioning democracy by itself.
However many Africans say that the ‘rainbow nation’ was never a reality in South Africa. The ideals of a perfect, integrated country never happened in the years after apartheid – as many had hoped it would. Instead, traces of racism linger behind closed doors which are now opening up. More than the issue of just hairstyles, this incident speaks volumes about the white community in South Africa trying to stifle African identities – and it happens outside the classroom as well. Early this year, a woman took to Facebook to complain about black beach goers and described them as “monkeys” which caused a social media frenzy, with many Africans – both civilians and government officials – offended by her comments. Are these seemingly small instances just a small glimpse of a larger race-related problem in South Africa?
Some say no. They feel that this protest – and others like it – are an effort to reverse the ‘rainbow nation’ image and instead fight for a ‘blacker’ South Africa. An official working within South Africa’s Department of Cultural Affairs and Sports* stated that these protests do more harm than good in integrating the country’s diverse groups of people. As a coloured person herself, she mentioned that the schools she went to were semi-private – where students wouldn’t even dream of staging a protest at the time and most integrated fairly well into the white schools.
She also stated that the vision Nelson Mandela had for his nation was the opposite of what some of these protests are trying to do. Mandela had hoped that South Africa would one day be integrated enough that blacks, whites, coloured and other minorities would be treated equally in society and have the same kinds of opportunities. The Department of Cultural Affairs and Sports has taken Mandela’s belief that sports can be used to unite people and created programs that help bring together different communities.
Despite disagreements on the importance of this protest, it seems as though the country still has a long way to go before Mandela’s vision of a unified South Africa comes true. The post-apartheid era of South Africa does not necessarily mean a post-racial society. Then again, race relations in South Africa is not like the United States where the division is primarily between blacks and whites. As we see more protests and push back from the black communities, it becomes apparent that maybe there is an underlying problem within South Africa’s institutions.
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the Reiff Center For Human Rights and Conflict Resolution or Christopher Newport University.