For many teenage girls, nothing is more sensitive than the way they feel about their appearance. In South Africa, race has been added to that delicate equation.
Last month, black students at the prestigious Pretoria High School for Girls protested a clause in the school’s code of conduct that banned wide cornrows, braids and dreadlocks. It wasn’t a new policy, and many South African schools have enforced similar rules before. But this time, girls pushed back — and their complaints touched a nerve.
The school, which was an all-white institution until the mid-1990s, dropped the restrictions a few days later — but not before triggering a debate across the country.
“They make it out to be about grooming, but it is about race,” says Lesley Chandata, a black woman from Zimbabwe who waits tables at a pizza parlor outside Cape Town.
The crux of the complaints from students and their supporters is that black South Africans are singled out for punishment or derision because of their appearance or speech. Even political parties like the Economic Freedom Fighters and the ANC Women’s League and government officials joined the discussion, denouncing the policy.
“Schools should not be used as a platform to discourage students from embracing their African identity,” tweeted South Africa’s minister of arts and culture, Nathi Mthethwa.
The Pretoria High hair rule seemed to perpetuate the notion that even in the post-apartheid era, Africans in Africa shouldn’t look or act like Africans.
“When I first heard about it, I took it very personally,” says Thandi, a psychology student at the University of Cape Town who asked that only her first name be used. “This is Africa, and we can’t be naturally who we are.”
Finish reading the story at NPR.