The school hairstyle protest in Soweto

When black students at an elite school in South Africa's capital protested over how teachers treated them over their hair, everyone noticed. It's not the same in township schools.

Nali'Bali Story Bosso Launch at the Soweto Theater 2017. Image credit US AID via Flickr.

Standing at school assembly under a chilly winter sun on a Friday morning in August 2017, the learners are listening to the pastor. He is barely audible, preaching from the balcony without loudspeakers. The learners are also not quiet: a palpable excitation animates them; something is brewing. They cannot wait for him to end his speech. The principal is absent today, allegedly attending some funerals. Today he will not address them about the need to improve their pass rates or the imperative to make informed career choices as he usually does after the sermon. As soon as the last “Amen” is said, a group of older girls starts whistling and yelling “Hayi-Hayi!”

Within seconds, they form a compact jumping mass: the protest has begun. Some girls are proudly brandishing a pack of hair extensions. The message is clear: allow hair pieces at school! The deputy principal is the only one chasing them. He is holding his folders with a disturbingly confident attitude, as if he has everything under control. The teaching staff is carefully observing, from a distance, this seemingly undisciplined, volatile mass of young women. As the deputy principal walks towards them, they quickly encircle him. Hundreds of girls take over, discovering how easily they are winning the courtyard battle. They then run towards the gate and are soon outside, marching towards the neighboring school with whom they had planned the protest. Unable to mobilize them, some of the learners slowly return. No teaching can happen today. “The learners have won a longer weekend,” the school security guard cynically puts it. A policeman discreetly leaves the school management building. Things did not appear so unruly to necessitate his team’s intervention. Representatives of the education district enter the building to initiate the independent revision of the code of conduct.

This is not happening in isolation, Indeed, in July 2017, protests over electricity and housing service delivery were flaring in Soweto and scandals about racism spread across Johannesburg’s schools. The provincial MEC for Education, Panyaza Lesufi, was forced to respond. He visited a variety of schools, from the elite private boys college, St Johns, to a middle-class private school in Kempton Park and also Klipspruit West High School in Soweto, the site of some contention between parents and the Gauteng Education Department over the appointment of a Black principal. Considering the national and global coverage and the highly political handling that a similar protest at Pretoria Girls High School earned the year before, the lack of coverage of the hairstyle protest in Soweto  appears unsettling. By contrast, at Pretoria Girls, schooling was never disrupted by the mobilization which took a much more disciplined form during a Saturday school fair. It was then carried further outside the school, among others by university students then in the thick of protests over decolonizing campuses.

Natural hairstyles in the form of afros, dreads or braids is associated with anti-conformist, cosmetic consumption and aesthetic performances of antiracism and anticolonialism against the white canons of beauty. In South Africa, this claim for capillary liberation has had an especially high political resonance as it led to learners’ collective mobilizations in a context of school desegregation. The emblematic protest at Pretoria Girls fits within these interpretations, drawing attention to the gendered aspect of institutional racism at school.

August 2018

It’s been one year since the eruption of the hairstyle protest in a Soweto high school where I was doing research on discriminations at school as part of my PhD, and the code of conduct has not been profoundly amended. Parents did not approve the desired hairstyles, and even less so the schooling disruption. As if copied from a formerly whites-only school’s policy, it states that “ethnic hair” is allowed for girls if “neat and tied up” while “no dreadlocks, no braiding” is permitted. It also explicitly emphasizes that “when [freedom of expression] leads to a material and substantial disruption in school operations… this right can be limited as the disruption of school is unacceptable.”

In practice, the code is never referred to; it is almost irrelevant. Boys’ soccer player-style cuts are still tolerated, while few, albeit increasingly numerous, cool girls dare to go against the rules. Their expensive hairstyles are perceived by the school staff and learners as remunerations for sexual favors for their “blessers” or “sugar daddies,” in a context where learners get sponsored for their uniforms and can hardly afford to buy pen and papers. For the staff, hairstyles are valuable assets which puts the girls at risk to be “kidnapped or raped.”

The policing of hair has not changed much despite this seemingly forgotten protest. Although it erupted at an opportune time, the hairstyle protest in Soweto attracted neither media nor political attention.

Black hairstyles at school are unquestionably a political and contentious issue in many countries. Reports of learners ill-treated at school have mostly led to outbursts in middle to upper-class white-dominated schools in the US, UK or South Africa. Black hair has been read, according to by cultural sociologist Shirley Anne Tate as “personal surfacing” subjected to antiblack institutional racism operating through the schools’ code of conducts and the  micro-aggressions arising from its enforcement.

However, the sole gaze at a politically-charged elite single-gender school filtered through the lenses of (de)racialization does not enable us to see how the policing of learners’ appearances, fits within a broader construction of the imperative for schools to produce employable, respectable learners. Paradoxically, it is in low-income contexts—where arguably learners and educators have more serious challenges than to fix hairstyles—that the fabric of scholar respectability tends to most strongly rely on appearance.

The hairstyle protests cannot be simply analyzed as a proxy battle underpinned by deeper generational, gender and class divides. If things appear neat and disciplined, educators can at least save face. They play an academic strictness game to cope with the continuous failure of the school to produce social upliftment through education for the majority of learners. Hairstyle policing is also a way to regain control in a traditional and highly patriarchal fashion over the brash born-frees, and reaffirm the fragile authority of educators, often traumatized by too many years with too little support in harsh teaching environments. For learners, the humiliating suppression of their looks is even more unbearable as the school expands its record of broken promises, while their parents might have no choice but to maintain their faith. While the policing of appearances could be seen as the tip of the iceberg of institutional racism in elite settings such as Pretoria Girls, in low-income schools, it is core to the teaching ethos and is experienced as a deep, symbolic violence against learners’ dignity.

The struggle to democratize schools in milieux populaires (working-class areas) thus involves rethinking the injunction to produce respectability, not only in elite and middle-class schools but also in low-income schools. The compelled performance toward whitened patriarchal respectability has serious consequences on working class educators and learners, especially girls. It is all the more harshly experienced in township schools in South Africa, where dire inequalities are most blatant and brutal.

  • The author would like to thank the three South African English teachers and the PhD student Rodolphe Demeestère (Université Paris 1 Panthéon-Sorbonne) who gave insightful feedbacks on draft versions of the text, as well as the participants to the seminar organized by the Institute for African Studies and the George Bond Centre for African Education of Columbia University in April 2018 for contributing to a preliminary discussion on the hairstyle protest.

Further Reading