Sometime last week, a pupil at Pretoria High School for Girls presented an assignment highlighting inequality in South Africa.
The girl was allegedly taken to the principal’s office and reportedly threatened with suspension. By Saturday, during the spring fair, black pupils at the school marched, claiming they were fed-up with institutionalised racism and discrimination at the school.
On Monday anger vibrated across the country as footage of heavily armed security personnel patrolling the schoolyard appeared. They threatened to arrest the pupils.
The pupils were protesting against the school’s hair policy and for being questioned whenever they were in groups of two or more. They also claim they were barred from using their home languages in private discussions.
The girl who presented the assignment was highly emotional when she told Gauteng Education MEC Panyaza Lesufi on Monday that she was labelled racist by staff members and white pupils.
Her guardian, Lebo Madiba-Lokotwayo, wrote on Facebook that her niece was subjected to racism under the guise of the school’s policy.
“The girl gave a speech in class about employment in South Africa. She compared the politics of employment pre- and post-apartheid and highlighted the ills of apartheid and the role of trade unions,” Madiba-Lokotwayo posted.
“Her speech was interrupted; she was taken to the (principal’s) office and threatened with suspension.”
When her parents fought, the school used the hair regulations against the pupil. “ Her mother is black (Zulu) and her father is Indian. Doesn’t that just make her proudly South African? She represents everything that is beautiful about this country. #SheIsHerHair,” Madiba-Lokotwayo stated.
ANC Youth League Tshwane region chairman Lesego Makhubela was at the school to show support for the protest. Former pupils, students from the University of Pretoria, activists and Tshwane mayor Solly Msimanga later arrived too.
An online petition was created requesting Lesufi and headmistress Karen du Toit to ensure the school’s code of conduct did not discriminate against black and Asian girls. It also requested that disciplinary action be taken against teachers and staff who have implemented racist policies or racist actions, while also demanding that pupils who protested not be victimised.
Lesufi met pupils, management and the school governing body to resolve the problems.
Hundreds of young black girls emerged from their classrooms at break-time, repeatedly chanting “We are tired”.
In an emotion-filled two-hour meeting, pupils related some of the incidents they had experienced at the school.
Several schoolgirls, who cannot be named because they are minors, made horrendous claims of being insulted and manhandled. “I was called a monkey by a teacher. It pains me even now because we are treated differently at this school. We are made to feel that we do not belong,” recounted one tearful girl.
Another pupil narrated her story. “A white girl called me a dirty k-word. I didn’t report her to authorities because she has called other children the same and nothing was done.”
A pupil told the MEC that her afro hair was likened to a bird’s nest, and that she was forced to comb it.
“I have a natural afro, but a teacher told me I need to comb my hair because it looks like a bird’s nest.”
She said she was given a brush and told to look at herself in the mirror and neaten herself.
About 10 pupils spoke of the treatment they had received regarding their hair. “Teachers find it offensive when we speak to our friends in our mother tongue. We are stopped and told to stop making funny noises,” said one.
The same pupil informed Lesufi that during a discussion in class, pupils were asked to discuss what thoughts crossed their minds when they spoke about blackness.
“Only white learners were participating in the conversation. She said things like, when you think of the word black, you associate it with evil, dark, and bad things. But whiteness was associated with purity and good,” the pupil said.
Du Toit was at the meeting with two other people believed to be teachers who took notes throughout the discussion. They denied some of the claims made by the pupils, while indicating that the school was unaware of other issues raised.
A former pupil, meanwhile, told the Pretoria News that the protest by pupils was necessary as it had been an issue before.
“This was necessary because race has been an issue for a long time,” said Neo Kgobane. “We should have done something about it a long time ago. The school needs to step up its efforts in changing some of the rules that have kept many girls oppressed.”
The 19-year-old said the issue of racism at the school wasn’t just limited to hair, but extended to how they had been instructed to behave.
“There are other aspects of institutional racism that we have been subjected to at the school,” Kgobane said.
“We are not allowed to speak in our mother tongue. When we as black girls are sitting together and conversing we are told that we are too loud. The things that happen here can have a major effect on how you perceive yourself.”
Following another meeting by Lesufi, parents, pupils, governing body and management, a committee will be appointed to investigate the matter.
Lesufi said there would be a review of the code of conduct and setting aside of the regulation regarding black hair. The committee set up to look into the matter must report back within 21 days. Schooling was expected to resume on Tuesday.
“I am sorry about your experiences but I assure you it ends here. You are not meant to go through this pain,” Lesufi said.