The Pretoria Girls’ High School hair policy has topped the South African news headlines for the first week in September 2016. Although race-related news stories generally top news headlines in South Africa, the speed with which this story escalated and dominated the news was astonishing. Why would that be? It can’t possibly be just about a revolt about ‘hair rules’. About 90% of past and present South Africans attending private and public schools have stories to tell about ‘hair rules’ and the draconian measures implemented by staff (or some staff members) to enforce them. Dress-code and presence have been a long time part of the South African school history and environment. In most of the schools in South Africa (public and in many cases private) school dress and “presentability” are part of the make-up of the school system. Many reasons can be given, but the fact is that it derives and originated from the colonial and especially British school system.

The ‘hair rules’ revolt is a manifestation of the dark side of the so called inclusivity of public education. It is about marginalisation, assimilation and a quest to belong. It is also about silencing dissenting voices. The protesting schoolgirls (they called themselves the Black Magic Movement) said that they decided to stage the protest after all channels had been exhausted and “they had been consistently shut down and ignored” (News24: Sunday 4 September 2016, 12:31pm).

Public schools started a process of integration twenty years ago. One would have expected that schools’ codes of conduct, rules and regulations would have been translated towards inclusivity by now. This seems not to be the case. It seems that former model C schools understand inclusivity as centring around the allowances they make towards Others not previously included. The Other are then expected to blend (silently) into school traditions, codes of conducts and rules. These are strictly adhered to in order to keep the peace. The Other is defined through the One (the historic white girl/boy) who has always found the traditions, codes of conduct and rules comfortable. Sharing space and place with Others we only know of, is scary. When the Other becomes a dissenting force, chaos can only be averted by discipline and keeping to rules. Silence protests cannot be met by security measures and in essence reinforcing otherness as a crime.

South Africa has been a constitutional democracy for over twenty years now. Education and specifically basic education has a crucial role to play in this regard. Democracies are a balancing act between consensus and dissensus. Shouldn’t teaching and learning towards both the processes of consensus and dissensus be the aim of basic education? To enable children to balance consensus and dissensus in order for them to become activists and grow democratic traditions. All voices must be heard and critical thinking as part of teaching-learning principles must be supported. Assimilation and the silencing of voices can only be counter-productive in achieving this. Schools are the best and most obvious places and spaces to learn from each other (also about hair types and hair styles). It is the place and space were teachers and children have multiple opportunities to face the Other and be aware of dehumanising rules that impede on the notion of “who I am”! The Other who I (and we) only vaguely know of or from whom I withdraw myself without try to counter. And this knowledge is mostly based on assumptions, prejudices and stereotyping.

It is therefore both disappointing and reassuring to witness incidences such as the ‘hair rules’ revolt. It is disappointing because it clearly indicates that schools do not tolerate dissenting voices. It is however also reassuring that school girls – such as the Black Magic Movement- insist on being heard. The sad issue is that only one section of the voices attending the school(s) was heard. The “white voices” were silence or silenced they did not articulate as Born frees the importance of inclusion – and why they did not act, one should never know. We urge that if there is a next time ALL dissenting voices will be included in schools’ code of conduct and value system when they define who they want to be in a democratic South Africa based on human rights values.

Anne Becker and Cornelia Roux

Human Rights Literacy Research

10 September 2016