What the Pretoria High School for Girls pupils have made me realise that this isn’t all just about hair.
On August 27, several black high school girls demanded change. The change they wanted to see wasn’t extremely radical change. Their fists weren’t directed at large institutions such as the government or universities. No, the change they wanted to see was just within the four walls of their place of learning, Pretoria High School for Girls.
These young women had had enough. They wanted to feel the safety that a school is supposed to provide. With their beautiful afros and melanin-filled skin, they wanted to wear their natural hairstyles without fear of being punished, and most importantly, not feel like blackness was inferior to whiteness in their predominantly white, former-Model C space.
When I matriculated from Roedean School, Johannesburg, in 2010, I felt extremely privileged and geared with tools for the real world that only the prestigious school could have given me. Sure, I had an accent that pretty much symbolised British colonialism and couldn’t speak my home language, Venda, but I was a Roedeanian, a product of the ‘Best School of All’.
Thereafter, I attended the University of Cape Town to complete my undergraduate degree and lived in a bubble of pure ignorance with my other private school friends, who were mostly white. I was accepted in this world as someone who wasn’t “really black”. The colour of my skin was sort of brushed aside when meeting new white people as soon as I opened my mouth, and I couldn’t help but feel proud of myself when they told me how well-spoken I was.
The day that the pupils from Pretoria High School for Girls marched, I felt uncomfortable. I couldn’t quite understand why I felt that way. These girls were fighting for the right to be themselves. What made me uncomfortable was that I hadn’t realised the issues behind hair policies when I was their age. I was, at the time, more than okay with relaxing my hair to fit the mould, and it wasn’t until I turned 21 that I shaved off my relaxed hair and grew a natural hairdo. It was more because my hair was irreparably damaged than because of the need to embrace my natural state. Last week, while reading stories on the pupils, I felt that my years of private schooling had robbed me of the ability to embrace my blackness.
I will forever be grateful to these young girls, many of whom are ten years my junior. For making me realise, at 23 years old, that I actually shouldn’t be wearing my “posh” accent like a proud badge. For allowing me to reflect deeply on the situation, and making me realise that this isn’t all about hair. It’s about the preferred identity that black girls are forced to embrace while at predominantly white schools, while their blackness is gradually diminished with silencing tactics or anti-black policies weaved into school codes of conduct. It’s about being proud of individual culture and heritage in a country that is colourfully painted with diversity and difference. It’s about being well-educated and not having to bury my blackness to be considered so. It really is about so much more than hair.
So now here I sit, older and wiser, yet confused about where I fit in. How I wish that my parents had politely said ‘no’ to the private school teacher who told them to speak more English to me at home when I was five years old without feeling like my place at the school would be forfeited along with their refusal. I think about how my life could have been greatly different and fuller of self-love. But I am ready and excited for the change to come, and for more black people, young and old, to stand up for the right to be themselves.
Wits Vuvuzela, Roedean alumni add their voice to racial discrimination talks, September 2016