Pretoria High School for Girls: Black hair politics and the battle for dignity

It was just last week that my friend with a daughter in Model C high school in the northern suburbs of Cape Town was telling me about having to send an e-mail to the Mathematics teacher because the teacher made comments about the daughters hair. The daughter’s hair is in a natural mini Afro.

So when I was reading about the protests by black girls at Pretoria High for Girls this weekend, I immediately thought about my friend’s daughter. The administration at Pretoria High School for Girls, like many white South Africans, does not take seriously the dignity of black people.

Maybe it is good a good time to insert here that the South African Constitution, in the Bill of Rights, guarantees for everyone – including black girls – a right to human dignity. It reads, “Everyone has inherent dignity and the right to have their dignity respected and protected.” The administrators at Pretoria High School for Girls and other Model C schools in South Africa seem to ignore this important right while formulating “general appearance” guidelines.

In South Africa, lip service is paid to the idea of human dignity but there is a lack of respecting this right in practice. In other instances we speak of human dignity, but we have caveats, we say human dignity for all but not for the sex-worker, not for the homosexual, not for the gender non-conforming bodies, not for the black foreigner, not for the poor, and not for women.

Instinctually I want to say, how crazy is it that South Africa has a population that is more or less 80% black, but it is that black 80% that needs to modify to fit into European beauty ideals. I stop myself because although it is “crazy” because it is unjust – because it should not be so – it not crazy in that there is a history that leads us here. It is 350 plus years of colonization and then apartheid that brought us here. It is years of missionary education that was premised on racism. South Africa has a long history of denying black people their dignity, hence the specific inclusion of human dignity in the Constitution.

In South Africa we don’t always acknowledge the full impact of colonialism on present day society. In South Africa we are discouraged from engaging the history of colonialism. The history of colonialism is often neglected in discussions about race and racism and the creation of a democratic South Africa. Statements such as “we need to move on” are often used when colonialism is brought into a conversation.

What have those years done to our collective historical psyche?

What we need to interrogate and ask is why do we not engage more with colonialism and the effects of colonialism? We have a museum for apartheid, we have one for District Six, we have the Voortrekker Monument, but as my Boyfriend once asked, where is the museum or memorial for colonialism? Are we to pretend that the 300 years preceding 1948 never happened?

I suspect the answer to the colonialism museum question has to do with who has the power, – monetarily, socially, and otherwise – to realise such a museum. Building a colonialism museum would imply that there will be a place where we can go and engage with colonialism and its legacy. And yes, it would be a museum of horrors. It would be a museum where the violence of whiteness is on proper display, where it is obvious.

Instead of thinking hard about colonialism and then apartheid and their legacies, in South Africa we are encouraged to “move on” and “leave the past in the past.” This is a futile exercise of course because the past is not in the past; the past is here with us and the protests by black girls at Pretoria High School for Girls is evidence of this.

You might ask what does colonialism and then apartheid have to do with the protests at Pretoria High School for Girls?


We are often blind to the ways that we are all affected by colonialism. The fantasies that white South Africans still have about black people are palpable. You see part of what colonialism has bequeathed on us is the investment in an authoritarian Christian nationalist ethos. The bizarre notion that imposing rules on how you look will instill “discipline” and make students excellent – as if you think with your hair. South African schools really need to rethink the dressing codes, the school prayers, the school songs, and school traditions that were part and parcel of the colonial and then apartheid regimes. The problem at Pretoria High School for Girls is real and its 3 centuries in the making.

The rules and regulation of grooming practices for black girls at Pretoria High School for Girls has everything to do with our colonial past and then apartheid. These grooming practices were established during colonial and then apartheid years. The idea that black people’s grooming practices must be monitored is as old as 1562. The ways that black girls are treated at Pretoria High School for Girls, and other Model C schools is rooted in the ways colonialists and then the apartheid regulated the “neatness” of black bodies.

The language of “neatness” is still part of the guidelines of Model C schools. It is used to discipline black girl’s bodies in order for their bodies to closely reflect the dominant European ideal. It is when the black girl’s hair does not reflect the European ideal that it’s “neatness” is called into question. Talk about a need for decolonising the South African schooling system.

The black girls who get into trouble with Model C school administrators are not black girls with “properly” combed European looking weaves, it is not black girls who do their hair in the “ordinary” way – an ordinary that pleases the white administrator. It is the black girl with an Afro. It is the black girl with dreadlocks. It is the black girl whose hair pronounces I am black and I know it and I love it.

Many white South Africans, including white teachers at Model C schools, have not caught up with a post-apartheid South Africa that is supposed to be rid of racism. How is it ok for a white schoolteacher to think that it is acceptable to call a black girls hair a “bird next”?

Some white South Africans might have missed it, but whiteness just isn’t what it used to be. But you see blackness is also not what it used to be. As demonstrated by #RhodesMustFall, #FeesMustFall, and now #StopRacismAtPretoriaGirlsHigh with regards to whiteness and previously whites only institutions, it is not business as usual anymore.

The black girls at Pretoria High School for Girls are a clear demonstration that blackness is not going to be lived in ways that pleases white administrators at Model C schools. Black girls at Pretoria High School for Girls are fighting back. They are fighting for their dignity. They are fighting to exist in a South Africa where their being is not measured against European standards of beauty disguised in discourses of “proper grooming.” Black girls shouldn’t be policed like this. In fact there’s already too much policing that girls experience what with the patriarchal culture that we live under, teachers cannot and shouldn’t be part of the policing. They should be helping high school girls forming positive body image.

What is taking place at Pretoria High School for Girls is shocking because black girls in high school shouldn’t have to protest for their dignity and their identity to be valued and respected. However, what is happening there it is not surprising. Model C schools have been mistreating black pupils all throughout the post-apartheid period. We have had reports of schools not allowing black languages to be spoken in class. We have seen schools with very questionable admissions policies.

Who can forget Simphiwe Dana deciding to move from Cape Town to Johannesburg so that her children can have access to good schools that offer black languages? So, no, this is not surprising. The black students I have met at university who went to Model C schools speak of the racism experienced at these schools. They speak of the pressure to assimilate to whiteness. Students are denied the Right to speak their mother tongues in Model C schools, and in addition they pick up a distinct “Model C English” accent. For most of us high school was tough, but there is a particular self-loathing that is produced by Model C schools.

The reaction from the school authorities towards the protests by black girls at Pretoria High School for Girls is disgusting. It is apartheid style tactics of making the school a victim with teachers speaking of being “threatened and scared”. This is a typical whiteness response when white people and white institutions are called into order about their racism.

White South Africans are so used to treating black people and black people’s bodies with disregard that when black girls demand to be treated with dignity, white teachers speak of feeling “threatened and scared.” Of course the irony is that the white teachers are blindly unaware of the “threat” they pose to black girls identities and self-worth. They are blindly unaware how “scared” the black girls must be to have to put themselves in the line of fire with the school administration. Also, what about the fear that the teachers place on black girls who have to extensively calculate the “appropriateness” of their hair with every new hair do.

It’s impossible to miss the gendered nature of hair “guidelines” or “general appearance” guides for schools as they are often designed for girls and much less is said about boys. Since Pretoria High School for Girls is a girl’s school, I imagine the policing must be doubly intense. We are already aware of the many ways that black women’s bodies are surveilled in society. Places like Pretoria High School for Girls institutionalize the policing of black girls bodies under “dress codes.”

In the policing of black girls bodies at this school, how do they deal with the diverse ways that gender is experienced and lived. I shudder to think how pupils at places like Pretoria High School for Girls who have gender non-conforming identities, or who are forming gender non-conforming identities. The violence that must be visited upon such pupils at a school that has dress and hair policies that are admittedly “conservative.”

The “rules must be followed” and “all schools have rules” response to the protests by the black girls at Pretoria High School for Girls is telling. Although it is a typical response from many South Africans who value authority and rules for their own sake, it is problematic. That “rules” must be followed even if the rules are unjustified, colonial, and affect the dignity of black girls is unacceptable.

This type of discourse is of course not unlinked to the “children must be seen and not heard” nonsense that allows for the silencing of children, where children learn to be silent even when they are being hurt. Rules do not exist in isolation. People create rules. Rules are created by appointed structures, by society with a particular agenda. Rules are set to encourage a particular way of being, of dressing, of styling. Rules are ideological, they embody the world view and assumptions of the economically and socially dominant group who govern institutions. They are underpinned by a certain way of seeing the world – what the world ought to be like. Rules are not objective. So rules that are anti-Afro are rules that are anti-black. Rules that are anti-dreadlocks are rules that are anti-black.

The problem with the white administrators at Pretoria High School for Girls and other Model C schools is symptomatic of the problem of white South Africa. White South Africans are not invested in, and they show no commitment in fostering a nonracial South Africa. It has been lamented time and time again that the people involved in the post-apartheid rebuilding of South Africa is black people.

White South Africans are more interested in living in gated communities with electrical fences and security guards than engaging with black people. In post apartheid South Africa white people still have not taken the time to learn more about the black cultures around them. The poverty porn in Cape Town and Johannesburg galleries and the occasional Sunday braai at a place like Mzoli’s doesn’t count.

White South Africans are still living with strangers, an ideologically far away people. There is very little effort from white South Africans engaging meaningfully with black people and black cultures, and that is why in 2016 schoolteachers can say racist things about black girls hair. That is why administrators are poorly handling the protests at Pretoria High School for Girls. That is why when black girls are screaming to be treated with dignity; they are met with “rules must be followed” responses.

There is a total disregard of the black girls personhood. In this climate, in this culture of ignoring the dignity of black girls, Maliaka Eyoh’s words, a grade 12 pupil at Pretoria High School for Girls, become that much more prophetic when she states, “When we stand together, our message is stronger. We understand that we cannot trust two old white men who work for other old white men to stand up and combat the injustice and incite the change we need.” Maliaka Eyoh understands that she has to fight for her dignity and the dignity of other black girls. She understands the poverty of white South African’s will to meaningfully engage with blackness.

Many South Africans are proud of the black girls of Pretoria High School for Girls. We are excited for the world these black girls envision for themselves. A South Africa that is not anti-black. A part of me, a big part of me wishes that these black girls didn’t have to do what they did. And as I wish this, I am reminded of one of my mother’s favourite 16-century English proverbs, “if wishes were horses, beggars would ride.” A luta continua.

Author: Lwando Scott

My name is Lwando Scott. I am a PhD candidate in sociology at the University of Cape Town. I grew up in Port Elizabeth but I call Cape Town home now. Like most South Africans I am trying to make sense of this country. I am trying to make sense of my place in this world and I think starting this website, while I should be doing my academic work, is a way of feeling through the darkness.