south africa school girl hair scandal
Students say school's hair policy is racist
01:47 - Source: CNN

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Students protest discriminatory school policies in South Africa

The girls claim their schools have unfairly targeted black students for their hair

CNN  — 

South Africans are responding on social media after protests over alleged racist hair policies at a prestigious high school. And other schools in the country are seeing similar demonstrations. It all started with the protest by a group of young black girls from Pretoria Girls’ High.

A video posted on Instagram went viral, showing 13-year-old Zulaikha Patel and fellow schoolmates in a tense standoff with private security guards. The students can be heard yelling, with their hands in the air: “take us all, they’re going to arrest us.”

Students say they spoke out after they were told by teachers that their hair is “exotic” and that their Afros needed to be tamed.

Zulaikha Patel, 13, has been at the forefront of the Pretoria Girls' High protests against racism.

“The issue of my hair has been a thing that’s followed me my entire life, even in Primary I was told my hair is not natural, it’s exotic, my Afro was not wanted or anything like that and then the issue followed me to High School” Patel told CNN.

Pretoria Girls’ Code of Conduct does not specifically mention Afros, but it does lay out rules for general appearance, including prescribing that all styles “should be conservative, neat and in keeping with the school uniform.”

Pretoria Girls’ High, which was founded in 1902, was all white during apartheid, but since 1990, it has been integrated to all races. Many South Africans feel that the incident illustrates ongoing racial tension and expressed their complaints on social media of how shocking it was that such issues still exist 22 years into a democracy

In a recent statement, Gauteng Department of Education said that, after a visit to the school by the province’s education minister, Panyaza Lesufi, it has been decided that, “The Code of Conduct of the schools must be reviewed and the clause dealing with hairstyles should be suspended in the meantime.”

Pretoria Girls’ High told CNN it cannot comment on the issue as a direct order from the Gauteng Department of Education, but in a statement on the school website, it said the school’s governing body had held a successful meeting with Lesufi and that it would work closely with the education department to “resolve the issues which were raised.”

But that was not the end of the hair issue

The protest at Pretoria Girls’ High sparked protests at other schools in the country. Students of Lawson Brown High School in the Eastern Cape marched against racism and cultural discrimination, and, on Tuesday, parents of students who attend St. Michael’s School for Girls in Bloemfontein accompanied their children to address the issues they have with hair regulations there.

CNN reached out to both Lawson Brown High School and St. Michael’s. Lawson declined to comment, but St. Michael’s spokesman, Brian Sweetlove, said: “With regards to the hair policy, the whole policy is under review and we’ll have to see what changes need to be made. Some parents were happy enough with the broadness of the hair policy but some have caused us to believe that changes need to be made.”

Protests have been a long time coming

Lebo Kgothadi, alumnus and former prefect at the Pretoria Girls’ High who graduated in 2009, says she was made to abide and enforce rules at their daily inspections, which she felt very uncomfortable with.

“As prefects we had to conduct regular inspections such as checking if the uniform was neat as well as if the girls’ hair was neat. For those who had afros or natural hair they had to tie their hair and push it back, but afros are hard to tie back so I think that was a bit unfair and quite strict,” she told CNN.

In the Department of Education’s statement, they noted that, in addition to complaints about hair policy, students indicated “use of African languages on school premises is not tolerated, yet the other learners are allowed to express themselves in Afrikaans.” Afrikaans is closely associated with the apartheid regime.

The Government’s education spokesperson Oupa Bodibe told CNN, “This is a real problem (and has) caused cultural clashes. Learners are majority black and teachers majority white.”

Many South Africans have said the young girls showed uncommon bravery and that the protest was a long time coming.

“This situation has been long simmering, it finally boiled over this weekend,” Bodibe said.