“Our schools undervalue blackness and focus more on containing us than nourishing us”

The 28th of August 2016 marked a turning point at Pretoria High School for Girls. In a school where stories of racism and injustice from black girls are usually met with silence from the staff, this time, our silence was met with police and dogs.

Model C schools are meant to be a beacon of unity in the democratic South Africa where students of all backgrounds can achieve an enviable standard of education while having all their constitutional rights upheld. Most black girls who attend Model C schools will tell you that this is not the case. Our schools undervalue blackness and focus more on containing us than nourishing us. Racially charged incidents between students and staff members are commonplace, as are sweeping these issues under the rug and pretending that PHSG is a school that upholds the value of equal treatment. There are more incidents than pen can put to paper, but all of those experiences are valid.

In 2015, a black student in grade 10 was told outside an exam venue that she had to “fix” her hair. With nothing to fix, she entered the exam. She was further told by a staff member that she would not be allowed to write her exam with her hair “like this”. This same student was, in a different incident involving a different staff member, told that her natural hair looked like a bird’s nest. Both members of staff involved have faced no visible repercussions and still stand to teach young black girls every day.

Between 2015 and 2016, a now grade 11 student was hissed at by a member of staff outside her office and told to “comb your hair, it looks terrible”. When the student combed her hair, the teacher was further disappointed that only the length of the hair had changed and not the texture. This same student has had her hair referred to as “kaffir hair” by two separate staff members.

In 2016, two grade 11 students were conversing in Xhosa during a lesson where the staff member had stopped teaching and all pupils were chatting freely (some in English, others in Afrikaans). The staff member singled out these two girls and asked them to “stop making those funny noises” because it was making her uncomfortable in our English medium school. This same staff member has also referred to dreadlocks as “dirty old braids.”

In the school hostel, a staff member reprimanded a girl for wearing a doek, calling it inappropriate for dinner and against school code. Stripping the doek of all its cultural meaning and significance with one remark. Hostel students have been told that spaces largely populated by black boarders resemble squatter camps, and told to comb through their hair with dirty combs pulled from old storage boxes before they could come downstairs for dinner.

Incidents like these occur on a weekly basis at Pretoria High School for Girls. White students lovingly refer to Girls High as “the most fair and just” school that they know. They tell us racism doesn’t exist because they’ve never experienced it. Meanwhile, black girls live in fear and discomfort at existing in their skin in that same environment… the one that they trusted to keep them safe. Its clearer now more than ever that black and white girls may sit in class together, but we don’t experience the school in the same way.

PHSG preaches that they want to create learners who are intelligent and capable of taking on the world. So during the week of the 28th of August: that is who we became. Black girls mobilised to stand as a unit and show Girls High that we see each other and they need to see us. Girls came to the school on civvies day with the intent to carry on as normal while wearing all black garments and doeks. Instead of attempting to start a meaningful dialogue, security guards loosely patrolled the outside assembly. Girls wearing doeks that sported the ANC logo were pulled from assembly and taken into the headmistress’s office. Teachers told learners in classrooms that they felt threatened and scared. Because black girls in colourful doeks are something to be feared. After school, groups of black girls were repeatedly told to disperse because they “appeared to be conspiring”.

The general consensus of the demonstration on Friday was that we were seen, but not heard. And this was unacceptable. So, once again, black girls mobilised. We decided that during the school’s annual spring fair, we as black students would meet at the netball courts to hold hands and walk to the front of the school. No shouting, no dancing, no struggle songs. A silent walk of sisters, hand in hand. Before the group could get a head start, the security guards shut the gates, forcefully pushing girls backwards and reporting the procession as a “snaakse groep”. When the gates re-opened, attention was on us. Girls proceeded to walk to the front of the school and upon their arrival were met with a police car, extra security force and members of the governing body threatening to arrest girls as young as 14. All the while raffle tickets continued to be sold in the background.

In a scenario that should have sparked more anger and unrest, there was a weariness. A sense of fatigue. We were shown, once again, that our voices don’t matter. That our anger is unfounded. That our emotions are an inconvenience. When we were taken into an empty classroom to have a “discussion” with members of the governing body (who proceeded to tell us that we didn’t need to “add on” to already discussed issues and that cultural appropriation should be seen as a compliment), we felt ourselves being swept under the rug again. Our collective story was just another to be lost in the school files, labelled “we looked into it.”

We came out of spring fair without the usual bags of candyfloss and fashion show tickets. We came out with knowledge and understanding. We know now more than ever that blackness is undervalued in our institution. We know that blackness is undesirable on black bodies but we need to feel complimented when Beckys plait cornrows or serve us in the tuck shop with box braids. As long as OUR hair fits the code, that’s all that’s important to them.

We understand now that we are one another’s strength. 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. We understand that we have support. And we understand now, more than ever that the experiences written on our skin and twisted into our hair are valuable and unique and it doesn’t matter whether or others want to acknowledge them. We know we matter. Race matters.

On the 29th of August, a presenter on Metro FM commented that the girls seen at the forefront of the protest weren’t matrics and looked about 14. This is correct. This movement isn’t about those of us on our way out. It’s about the girls who have years left at the school and deserve the chance to figure out who they are without harassment and fear. They don’t need to wait until they’re 18 to start seeing the value in themselves.

The black students of Pretoria High School for Girls have lost faith in our school. But our motto “prosit spes labori” rings true. We are working in hope. Hope that because we are the seed, roots will rise from us and somewhere in the centre of all of this frustration a black student somewhere will feel comfortable in the skin under their school uniform. All of this is for that.

MALAIKA EYOH is a grade 12 student at Pretoria High School for Girls

Featured image by Mishka Wazar>

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42 Comments

  1. Vinesh Rajpaul says

    Preach! You are an intelligent, inspiring, and courageous leader who is clearly capable of taking on the world!

  2. Geraldine says

    Oh please! Cry me a river black girls. I was often told to neaten & brush my hair at school. I’m not black but went to a model C girls school where neatness seemed part of the curriculum. I took public transport & was often in a hurry so I came to school a bit worse for wear. Oh so now white teachers aren’t allowed to say anything about your “appearance” because its racist. I can see this article is completely biased & based on the feelings of these whiny young woman. Suck it up brats, & get over yourselves. Respect authority & stop disguising your lack of discipline & respect for your teachers by pulling the race card! Grow up.

    1. Vinesh Rajpaul says

      Being told off for having “kaffir hair” is not racist? Such abuse needs to be sucked up, and authority figures spouting such racist filth need to be respected? Treating students with suspicion and contempt is the same thing as caring about neatness?

      As the article notes, just because you might not have experienced racism, it does not mean that others aren’t subjected to it all the time. Consider the possibility that maybe these students do have to experience genuinely awful racist abuse, instead of coming out on the attack against the victims.

    2. Sensual_sloth says

      Wow.

      You just went right ahead and read what you wanted to? This isn’t about hair. It’s about respecting people for their cultural and individual attributes and accepting that we have to realise this in order to make valued and critical judgement. Maybe read the article again without blinkers on before commenting.

    3. BoniM says

      So its ohk for whites to continue to steal our Identity just because they don’t feel comfortable about who we are. Our ” kaffir hair” is not just a hairstyle, its who we are and its part of our blackness’. Instead of your so called authority to teach these young girls to embrace who they are as individuals and their cultures they actually try to make them dislike themselves. This is not just about hair, its about white people setting standards based on what suits them and force them on black people. So what if white people had ” kaffir hair”, would you still see it as untidy? Would you tell them to relax their hair so they can tie them in a pony tail?

    4. Daniel says

      Geraldine can you not see that you just gave even more weight a validity to what Malaika is saying when you posted that comment? Please please please just stop for 5 min, read it again, remember that we DO NOT live in the past and try and hear what she is saying. The year is 2016 and opinions and views like yours are fast becoming the minority, learn to understand and embrace the change. It’s coming for you.

    5. Malaika says

      Geraldine, I’m sorry that taking public transport to your model c school turned you cold to the injustices that black women across the world face. But as a non black person, there is really no space for you to judge and criticize the experiences that are not yours nor will you ever face. There are people speaking up because there is a problem. It’s amazing that people are always more angry about racism being called out then about the actual racism itself.

      1. Sally says

        Malaika, don’t minimise Geraldine s experiences, as a poc you have no clue about her lived experience. You should realize this is a safe space. #vomitingonmyself

        1. Rita Chiricuzio says

          good. Vomiting on yourself is an appropriate look to match what’s coming out of your brain and your mouth

      2. Rita Chiricuzio says

        Exactly so!

    6. Kam says

      If it’s your choice to be insulted and abused for a simple thing like your hair then that’s your problem. Maybe you should take a look at yourself and why you let yourself be treated that way. Don’t hate these girls because they did something you didn’t even think of doing.

    7. Victoria says

      Geraldine I am posting this comment as a ‘Black’ senior lecturer from England, English born and raised, however with African parents. And I can safely say that even on the over side of the world your comment is void of intelligence and goes to support the persistent stigmatisation and marginalisation that these female students are talking about. Have you ever been told that you cannot sit your exam because you came into school with untidy hair as a result of a turbulent bus ride? I doubt. I often find that the people who stand to defend racism (whether explicit racism or implicit racism) are victims of deeply ingrained fear and sense of inferiority and lack of value, if not you would see that having a healthy amount of pride in your cultural background and cultural symbols is not a crime. You should keep quiet if you do not have anything informed to say.

      You do not have to be from a certain race to understand the reality of their struggle. For example, when there was news in England of the white farmers in Zimbabwe being evicted, although I am not white, I still emphasised with their situation (although a complex one) and did not offer empty unintelligent remarks, such as “well the blacks are the true indigenous of Africa so the whites deserve it”

      You should try and educate yourself, as you do not know when the shoe might (really) be on the other foot.

      Africa (including South Africa) is predominantly black, with individuals possessing naturally Afro hair, this is a true symbol of Africaness, and not your European (slightly untidy due to bus journey) hair. If you have nothing of quality to add, it would have been better for you to keep quite and go and educate yourself, instead of exposing your ignorance and lack of intelligence.

    8. GAGA says

      Pleas lady, go get omega 3 pills and overdose as much as you can for 3 years before you ever open your mouth again. Your head is as empty as a Easter egg.

      1. Victoria says

        Thanks GAGA very intelligent response.

  3. Kate says

    Beautifully, incisively written.
    The people lashing out across all platforms, and those refusing to hear and understand, are just those who are accustomed to silencing black voices and policing female bodies – a terrible, treacherous norm that has been allowed room to breathe for time immemorial, and which must be rallied against. Your experiences are relevant, your stories matter, your lives are infinitely powerful. As a white girl myself, I know I have nothing to lend to your cause except an ear. And to tell you that you are brave and wonderful.

  4. Bongani says

    White girls with untidy hair at hostel also have to brush their hair with old combs, the hair situation is very over exaggerated. I believe that afros should be allowed but they should be neatly presented, it is just common decency. We should hear the schools story before we judge.

    1. Malaika says

      While white girls with untidy hair may be told to brush their hair at hostel, it is certainly not with old combs belonging to other white girls with untidy hair. The ideas of what “tidy” is are eurocentric and do nothing for young black women in those spaces. The issue isn’t white girls, it’s not about them. The issue is the policing of not only hair, but black bodies and black individuality through a white lens that desperately needs to be cleaned.

    2. Kam says

      You don’t think having to comb your hair with an old dirty comb is absolutely disgusting? Who of any race would stand for that?

    3. GAGA says

      Did you see any untidy Afro hair Bongani? Please don’t be sheepishly stupid here. The issue is not about untidy hair which all gals are prone to have, more so white gals. The issue is about being told that your hair is not good enough in it’s natural state.

  5. simon says

    Woow
    Culture how nice when you are in the army you are told how to do your hair and to dress .does it mean they don’t respect culture.same applies to our police women and man they are told how to do their hairs .so it’s not culture its to do with grooming .
    In this case the girl concerned who is new in the school was told to tie her as per school policy signed by her parents she did not comply for the past few months .Should we allow her to set a new precedent of rebellion then where do we stop.
    Girls were asked to write a speech on something interesting and present it then she wrote about racism then disciplined for that (maybe school was too harsh here warning or reprimand would have been fine )
    School performance as per track record is next to perfect hence parents are on very long waiting list
    I am a black parent at the school being involved the school has student representative which meets with Sgb to discuss policy,infrastructure and performance and any other issue of concern .
    Did this new learner use this platform – she did not and her parents did not provide leadership .Instead she chose to mobilise and get the media involved to try and undo good track record of this school.
    I am also disappointed by our biased media that is extremely sensational.
    Our media majors on minors they forgot that they also need to be part of restoring the broken soul of this nation.

    Surely our soul is broken when we think that a doekie with a party brand and hair style is culture and we forget about values such as honesty,Respect for authority ,taking responsibility and accountability – I wonder what informs the so called culture.

  6. Geraldine says

    Nowhere in my comment did I condone or insinuate that saying someone has “kaffur hair” is acceptable. & I’m sure if this is indeed true those staff members will be dealt with. That is really the most this protest has to offer. Everything else is heresay & trivial. Added in to try & compound 2 unacceptable incidents & inflate it to a culture if racism at the school. Being asked to groom appropriately is not racist. Those girls where born in a democratic SA so where do they come with all this nonsense? From their racist parents that’s who. The old chip firmly in place & so instill the same ideas to their children. I stand by what I said, & school isnt always a walk in the park. Some teachers I never liked & sometimes I was offended. But oh gosh I couldn’t blame it on race, so I got over it like everyone else who deals with teachers they don’t like of the same race. School isn’t an exercise in expressing your identity with your appearance & personal style, the very fact that there’s a uniform throws that argument out the window, its about education & guess what, in the real world you don’t always get your way & society judges people on looks & grooming. No matter what the colour of your skin. Protesting is teaching those girls nothing but to be prejudice & cynical. Maybe one day when they face job interviews etc they might feel differently.

    1. Vinesh Rajpaul says

      You’re invalidating someone else’s experiences – no, actually many people’s experiences – simply because they don’t coincide with your own. Your experiences here are irrelevant. You’re charitably explaining away all possible racism as simple requests to groom properly, without considering the remote possibility that these students did and do in fact experience genuine racism (and rather uncharitably deciding straight away that the student’s parents must in fact be genuine racists).

      To say that they were born in a democratic SA, end of story, is to overlook the legacy of apartheid and the possibility that discrimination, ignorance, bigotry are all still alive and well in many corners of South Africa. You don’t have to look very far to find many, many people who will testify that this is the guess. If you’ve never experienced such racism – lucky for you.

      I’d suggest that protesting is a sign that these courageous students are learning to be free-thinkers, independent, and leaders – probably more valuable skills than an ability to fall in line, suppress one’s identity, and conform to a narrow set of expectations. A shame that society judges people on looks and grooming rather than core values, or quality of thought, or inherent humanity – but at least these girls are playing a part in building better society than the awful & superficial one you seem to think we’re all doomed to accept.

      1. Vinesh Rajpaul says

        * students’ parents ; * that this is the case. Excuse my typos.

    2. Daniel says

      “Being asked to groom appropriately is not racist” it is racist when the standards demmed appropriate are based on white bodies and western culture… Come on now, surly that one is obvious to you?

      1. Philip says

        To be fair I went to an all boys school and was put on detention for my hair just touching my ears a couple of times.

        The black guys never had this problem because they always shaved their heads (we couldn’t go less than a 3/4 as it was not considered acceptable but was fine for them). They joked with us about it when we ended up getting punished for this.

        Did we complain about our identity being stolen because the black guys just so happened to have hairstyles that seemingly suited the test for tidiness? Nope we just accepted that that was how things are and if we wanted to be part of the school all of us loved we would have to obey the rules.

        1. Kam says

          Did having your hair touching your ears interfere with your learning? Did it make you a bad person? That rule is colonial stupidity.

        2. Phumeza says

          Philip, you are missing the point. The rules that you had to obey were based on Euro/White standards and in this case did not apply to the Black. You were also happy to comply because they were applicable to you and your type of hair as a Caucasian male. (Your Black ‘friends’ did not have a problem with the rule because they were unaffected by it.)
          I don’t think you would have complied so easily had you been schooling where the policy was black-leaning and you were required to wear your hair as an Afro/Dreadlocks/’Chiskop’.
          Black girls/women/people in general are perpetually being ask to live up to some white standard and be happy about it.
          Your blindness to this, as betrayed by your response. is sad.
          Well done to the girls for speaking up

  7. Lutendo says

    Big ups to you Malaika and the rest of your boldness , it really breaks my heart when I hear about young people experiencing racism, this shows that we still have a long way to go as a nation. We’re all beautiful and created in the image of God, let us embrace our uniqueness and identity with pride. You’ve certainly been heard.

  8. Geraldine says

    You obviously just luuurve getting on your soap box imagining yourself to be the voice of the ‘oppressed’. Did you even go to school? Because if you did & currently putting children through school you would know that regardless of colour, teachers can be a pain & cramp your style. That’s called being a teenager! So how nice for those girls to show their disapproval by halling out an old crutch that never looses its shine. Ignore all my very valid points about schooling & dress codes & rules & guidelines on grooming, because that is being objective & that isn’t what you want to preach here is it. It just doesn’t quite fit into your rant about “the legacy of apartheid” & white suppression .. & at the end of the day, nothing is going to change the fact that they need an education & once they done & out in the real world, being quietly confident about who they are as people & not as just a colour. & sometimes that means being respectful. We ALL have to do it, that’s life. Or are they all preparing for a life of self pity & playing the blame game.

    1. General says

      Oh Crap!!! shutup

    2. Jane says

      Pleeeeaaaase just shut up! Mxm

    3. Sunshine says

      Goof grief you sound bitter!

    4. Victoria says

      Geraldine please inform us all, about what you know of the ‘real world’ seen as you so frequently and yet so flippantly refer to this real world context. What is the real world to you?

      You state that being in the real world – means sometimes being respectful. How ‘respectful’ of you – to refer to these girls parents as the ‘genuine racists’.

      You are clearly small-minded, with no insight into the real world. Might I be as bold as to say, you seem jealous of these girls in some way shape or form, maybe due to the attention that their bold actions has attracted.

      And FYI it is individuals like this, that actually make it in the real world, it is individuals like this, that will one day be your boss, as you continue to conform and come inline with the status quo and lack any sense of self identity.

  9. Geraldine says

    Shut up to who? I guess I should just be impressed you can spell. Maybe in 10 years time after all the “protesting” many won’t even be able to string a sentence together. 🙂 but hey at least the kids will be backward & illiterate in style right ? Lol

    1. Lauren says

      You would do well, Geraldine, to not respond and to try to listen to where Malaika is coming from. It would serve you significantly better if you tried to understand how the lived experience of others might be painful for them, whether or not you deem it to be the case. Instead of responding in a manner that, more than anything, only serves to show your narrow-mindedness, try to understand that the experiences of others can be hurtful for them. Once you’re there, try to consider being a black person in a country in which your being was, by law, stated to be less than. Try to consider what it means when you’re told that expressions of that being are are untidy or wrong. For you, it’s a mere matter of neatness. For black people, it’ being told that our appearance is wrong or unacceptable. Just take a moment to step outside of your own existence and consider what’s happening to people outside of it.

    2. Rita Chiricuzio says

      The fact that you even think laughing out loud is an appropriate response to a serious discussion about lingering prejudices (if not racism) and the experience of our youths is to be poo-pooed and compared to your own and explained Away by your ideas instead of listening to anyone elses actual experience is just further evidence that you are too arrogant and too far removed to even notice your own defensive justifications and dismissal of even a possibility of a problem. If in fact the eyes of youth see small things as representative of larger problems or have clarity of their own experience regarding the domination of authority and arrogance intended to impose compliance and assistance in denigrating their own selves then the proper response for teachers and leaders and encourages of thought is to listen and to consider the opportunity for support, learning,teaching, and improvement. If the administration’s position is to protect and preserve the authority and image of the school, not the students, and their expectation is to require complicit response to domination…. well that’s not really providing an education or good example of leadership is it?

  10. Sally says

    I love how when a rich kid can’t wear her hair her way every paper makes it front page news, yet when kids are raped by teachers no one gives a flying fuck. If you really cared about social justice you would pay more attention to the poor and less to the guillotine classes. I suppose everyone commenting here is in the guillotine classes.

  11. brett fish says

    Thank you for being brave and sharing your story and taking a stand. Really appreciate the learning i am getting as a 42 year old white male from a matric student and your friends on matters such as these. So proud of you all.

    love brett fish

  12. Goolam Dawood says

    The fact that I may have been educated in a similarly contrived eurocentric school system does not make it “normal”. As a country, we need to acknowledge the diversity and importance of black experience and try to understand it more. Racism is real. Racial hierarchy is real. And we shouldn’t subject our children to the damaging confines of a white/non-white identity construct. If anything, whites need to learn why this is important. Were the tables flipped, they’d be subject to experiences they cannot fathom. And herein lies the problem and the solution.

  13. Mitch says

    “Beckys”

    While I applaud you and support your right to speak from your lived experience, ethnic slurs should not be acceptable.

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