Privilege and proximity to whiteness speaks. A position of privilege and relative proximity to whiteness not only gives you a voice to speak in this country, it also provides you with an inter-national audience, ministerial interventions, public outrage, debates and dialogues. And of course, you form part of the ‘national narrative’.
The recent protest by young Black girls at the Pretoria Girls High published on (social) media is a clear case in point here. This incident exposes not only the totality of white racism in South Africa, but also the disguised hypocrisy of us Black people in dealing with it.
Yearly in South Africa children of the RasTafari community and Black children who keep dreadlocks for spiritual purpose like Intwaso or Ukuthwasa are rejected, chased away or suspended from (township & rural) schools for their dreadlock hairstyles – which forms part of their spiritual-cultural heritage and philosophical worldviews.
Yet, dololo (absolutely no) Black outrage against this clearly age-old racist practise which can be traced back to the advent of Black enslavement and the later arrival of European Missionaries, and their subsequent demonization of everything Afrikan.
The stories of rejected, chased away or suspended Rasta children and those who keep dreadlocks because of Intwaso or Ukuthwasa have been published and circulated widely on all (social) media platforms in this country; and even published in the country’s prominent newspapers, tabloids, radio and even television news.
These stories of dread exclusion and humiliation are also well recorded in some documents and reports of the Department of Education, South African Human Rights Commission, Equal Education and the Commission for the Promotion and Protection of the Rights of Cultural, Religious and Linguistic Communities (CRL Commission).
Earlier in January this year, the Principal of SBC Serumula in Tembisa expelled Grade 9 student Palesa Mailane from school because she has dreadlocks. Palesa had been admitted to the school the previous year in September, and the principal immediately instructed her parents to cut off her hair.
Palesa’s parents replied informing the school’s Principal that Palesa was a RasTafari child and that keeping dreadlocks was part of her spiritual-cultural tradition (religion). The parents sought help from Gauteng Education MEC Panyaza Lesufi’s office, which assisted in getting the girl reinstated to school.
But the Department of Education subsequently asked the parents to prove the religious significance of the teenager’s dreadlocks, and later said that Palesa’s dreadlock hairstyle did not comply with the schools code of conduct.
17 year old Anathi Marhe from Mfuleni High School also suffered the same systematic and sanctioned racism earlier this year on 13 January when his class teacher told him that boys are not allowed to have dreadlocks and he should cut them.
Consequently, when Anathi told the teacher he was RasTafari and that dreadlocks were part of his religious faith, the teacher shouted back at him: “we don’t teach RasTafarians in the school, you will bring bad influence”. This teacher literally refused to even teach the class while Anathi was in attendance.
Then there’s the stories of Odwa Sityata, Grade 8 pupil from Joe Slovo Engineering High School in Khayelitsha – suspended because of his dreadlocks; Afrika Nazo from the Alpha and Omega Christian Academy – chased away from school for wearing dreadlocks for cultural reasons; Yola Makasi Grade R learner from King’s College – denied learning because of his dreadlocks; Sikhokhele Diniso, Grade 10 pupil from Siphamandla High School in Khayelitsha – told not to come back to school because of his dreadlocks; Palesa Radebe from Leseding Technical School – routinely taken out of class and seated at the staffroom while her peers got tuition because she has dreadlocks. After Palesa was reinstated to school, the School Governing Body initiated a protest saying there would be no learning as long as Palesa Radebe attended classes.
These stories are countless and were widely published on prominent (social) media. So why was the general Black public silent about the racism and humiliation suffered by these Black children in township and rural schools? And in turn, what is it about the recent incident at Pretoria Girls High School that warranted the kind of outrage and reactions we’ve seen on (social) media from Black people?
The only reasonable answer is that Black people are hypocrites and selective when it comes to dealing with racism-white supremacy. I’m not a Marxist, but perhaps this is a matter of class and privilege. The higher up the ladder of socio-economic privilege, and the relatively closer you are to whiteness and the status thereof, the more audible you are in a society that ensures the permanent silence and invisibility of the underprivileged and excluded Black majority.
Or perhaps, as Steve Biko once stated, this Black silence and the general non-responsiveness to these stories is an explicit manifestation of the deep-seated, internalized self-hatred Black people suffer from; a white induced psychosis of some sort.
But Christine Qunta argues in her book ‘Why We Are Not A Nation’ that the condition Black people find themselves in is much more complex than self-hatred, arguing that “self-hatred is only one part of a complex set of symptoms of a psychological disorder that has become chronic throughout the Black world”.
The general response of some Black people to these stories has been to condemn the parents of these children, vilify them for backwardness or being ‘dirty’, or try to ‘advise’ (actually instruct) them to cut off the hair of their children in order for them to access the basic human right of education. In all the above stated cases most Blacks sided with the schools, slurring at both parents and children for breaking schools ‘codes of conduct’.
What is it about Afrikan hair, Afrikan hairstyles and Afrikan culture that breaks school ‘rules’ and ‘codes of conduct; do the kinks and knots on Afrikan hair bind and incapacitate Afrikans from thinking?
Historically all Afrikan slaves, male or female, were shaved bald by the slave-master. And later, all converts to Christianity – people who had denounced their own culture, history and philosophical worldviews and accepted the concept of a white Jesus and the religion of their oppressors – were shaved bald and given new European clothes to wear, and European (Christian) names.
And history also records that the first schools in this country were colonial schools established by white missionaries for the training of the newly converted Blacks. Today, most township and rural schools continue functioning in the tradition of colonial schools and institutions, negating indigenous knowledge systems, systematically oppressive to Afrikan children and Afrikan culture.
All of this was done by Europeans as part of the process of breaking down the Afrikan, completely severing the spiritual and cultural ties that consciously bound them to their ancestral memory and identity.
Thus, many Black schools today accept, and even encourage, that Black pupils use dangerous hair-straightening chemicals called ‘relaxers’ on their hair to look ‘beautiful’. And at worst, these schools systematically force Black boys and girls to completely shave their heads bald as a rule, like prisoners really.
These schools really operate more like prisons, where Black students are treated like incarcerated inmates and the teachers are the wardens who keep them in check, ‘disciplined’. And here ‘disciplined’ means in line with and obedience to whiteness. This is the same slave-and-master relationship training which begins at a very early age, reserved strictly for Black children.
And yet, there has never been any outrage from the general Black public against these institutional and structural racist practises, ‘rules’ and ‘codes of conduct’ which are administrated and enforced by Black principals and teachers (in township and rural schools).
But when children from privileged white schools located in the lofty suburbs of Pretoria speak, when children situated in close proximity to whiteness raise their voices, the whole nation erupts in public outrage, protests, debates and dialogues about racism and aesthetics in South African schools. Why?
The RasTafari Movement has always articulated the Afrocentric position that the dreadlocks on their hair bear a spiritual and political significance – a revolutionary symbol of cultural resistance against societal imposition of Eurocentric beauty standards and styles as the basic norm.
Traditional Afrikan spirituality and people who keep dreadlocks because of Intwaso or Ukuthwasa also articulate a clear position about the spiritual significance of dreadlocks in their cultural expression and communion with Ancestors.
But these voices have remained largely marginalized, ridiculed, muted, silenced, unheard by neither the government, department of education, nor the Black public that is now erupting against what has recently happened at Pretoria Girl’s High. As though some Black people’s hair (afro) is more important or better than other Black people’s hair (dreadlocks).
Christine Qunta clarifies for us that: “if skin colour is the important signification of beauty in a white supremacist world view, the real dividing line between those who are ‘the chosen’ and those who are not is hair”.
While we support fully the struggle of the young Black girls at Pretoria Girls High in principle and solidarity, we must however realize that there is a degree to which some Black people are complicit (consciously or subconsciously) in the continued administration, enforcement, reinforcement, defence and perpetuation of structural and institutional racism, racist attitudes and racist stereotypes against other Black people in this country.
These are the kind of Blacks that Steve Biko said needed to be reminded of their complicity in the crime of allowing themselves to be misused and therefore letting evil reign supreme in the country of their birth.
All in the name of advancing outdated ‘progressive’ white-supremacist, colonial and neo-colonial school ‘rules’ and ‘codes of conduct’.
By Thando Sipuye
The writer is an executive member of the Africentrik Study Group at the University of Sobukwe (Fort Hare). He is currently a History Masters Candidate at the Govan Mbeki Research & Development Centre under the South African Research Chairs Initiative at the University of Sobukwe (Fort Hare). He writes in his personal capacity.