Sunday, September 4, 2016

South African school hair protests are good for our democracy

What is wrong with traditional?
What has happened is a healthy harbinger of social change, and is yet another signal from our youth that the racist detritus of the past must go.

THE so-called “Afro-saga” surrounding the issue of multi-cultural hairstyles at schools, which burst dramatically into the public arena via recent events at Pretoria Girls High and Sans Souci, is something that has been brewing for years.

No-one should have been surprised when after decades of identity harassment, a group of Pretoria High learners would decide that enough was enough, and would mount a silent protest action by dressing in black and wearing doeks at the school fair.

That there was a realisation of what their rights were as citizens – albeit minors in many cases – speaks to the inherent problem in some schools, and the courage of these young people to actually speak out about them.   

The fact that the event went viral on social media shortly afterwards indicates that it had certainly touched a raw nerve – particularly amongst former learners who’d had to face exactly the same racial grammar at school in their day.  

Indeed, it is undeniable that we are witnessing a healthy unpeeling of what I call the apartheid onion, a social organism that constitutes layers of institutional, attitudinal and geographic racism. What has happened is a healthy harbinger of social change, and is yet another signal from our youth that the racist detritus of the past must go.

But let’s get back to the onion. Institutionalised apartheid may have been struck off the law books in 1994, but vestiges of it still remain in the realm of the attitudinal layer. That is why we have the Penny Sparrows of this world whose geographical space is not from the edges of society, but its privileged centre.

Then it has to be remembered that attitudinal apartheid is more difficult to dislodge from the national psyche as it is subliminally resident in the DNA of those citizens who can’t embrace the present. And, in many ways, attitudinal apartheid is often more insidious than in-your-face racism because it skulks behind veils.

It is ironic that “liberalism” is a key word here as the hair question – one of culture as opposed to fashion – has played itself out on the terrain of the Model C school. We have to remember that the first educational institutions to liberalise themselves in terms of admitting black learners in the 1990s were the Model C schools.

The liberality was well meant, of course, but there have been unintended consequences – largely due to the subliminal factors I’ve just mentioned. Many of the teachers who insist on English only during school hours, for example, seem to be unaware of their demeaning outlook.

South Africa is a multi-lingual society. English in the Republic is a lingua franca – in business, media, academia and the government – but to police English outside of this ambit, as some educators appear to do, is a form of identity politics that engenders the uncomfortable idea of group superiority.

Those educators who seem to think that all natural hair must be straightened, or relaxed, by rules and Alice bands also don’t seem to be aware that we have a right to our bodies, and that we are all not made the same. Again, our constitution acknowledges our differences, but on the basis of social equality.

That hair became the central matter is historically relevant. Hair in the 1960s was a political declaration of being, especially in the US civil rights movement. For instance, Black Panther founder, Huey Newton, wore an afro.

Activist Angela Davis – who said we had to liberate our minds as much as society – was celebrated for her afro too, which together with the raised fist, became a badge of Black Consciousness. Then there are dreadlocks, worn by the likes of Bob Marley not as a fashion statement, but as one of Rasta culture and belief.

So why – some may ask – has the hair question only arisen now, some 22 years after democracy? The answer is self-evident if we examine the history of black migration to Model C schools. Two decades ago, when we were a lot more na├»ve about the new South Africa, parents were focused on just getting the best education for their children.

With the first prize a solid academic grounding compared to the gutter education of the apartheid era, and prospects of tertiary education, certain concessions were made.  In those early days, issues of school governance and policy were secondary compared to the rising opportunities for social and economic advancement.

No one can be blamed for wanting the best for their children. But what happened in reality was that the geography of apartheid converged with a totally separate domain that had grown accustomed to privilege, as well as institutional and attitudinal superiority – something induced by 46 years of Afrikaner apartheid and three hundred years of colonial lordship by the Dutch and the British.  

In other words, the new learners from the townships – or the rapidly expanding grey areas of our cities and towns – entered a world that was very much on the terms of the existing status quo. That was the compromise; that was the sacrifice.

But times have moved on, and an unheralded battle – often against old-fashioned ignorance and conditioned responses – has been fought at many Model C schools as black parents have started to assert themselves on the School Governing Bodies on questions of culture, hair, toleration of religious holidays, the Muslim hijab, beards and the like.

But what is so significant about the protests at Pretoria High and Sans Souci – as well as other schools – is that learners have now decided to claim the educational space for themselves on their own terms.  Of critical importance, though, is that it is not a rebellion by young learners against the system, but rather, a demand that they become a part of the system. For our democracy this can only be good news.