The Herald (South Africa)
Hair row breaks out at PE school
Lawson Brown pupil defiant about changing afro style
ADEFIANT Port Elizabeth pupil has accused her school of racism amid threats of being barred from writing her first exam tomorrow if she does not get rid of her afro hairstyle. Lawson Brown High School Grade 12 pupil Unathi Gongxeka said she felt “violated and victimised” when teachers told her last week to either tie up or straighten her hair.
If she failed to follow the instruction, the 18-year-old said she was warned that she would be barred from writing the allimportant matric trial exams.
The incident has since sparked outrage on social media.
In a separate case, Pretoria Girls’ High School pupils clashed with school officials this week, staging a protest over a policy that led to black pupils being told to straighten their natural hair.
Gauteng Education MEC Panyaza Lesufi met Pretoria Girls’ High leaders and pupils yesterday, and said he would meet the school governing body to resolve the issue.
While Lawson Brown denied allegations of racism yesterday, principal Donovan Cairncross said they were simply enforcing a longstanding hair-related rule which applied to all pupils.
He denied Unathi was instructed to straighten her hair.
“There was talk of hair not being in line with our code of conduct and pupils were told to tie up their hair,” Cairncross said.
“Pupils are alleging racism but we have asked them to point out incidents and no one has been able to.”
Unathi, who lives in Kwazakhele, said deputy principal Knip Joubert conducted an inspection of pupils’ hair on Thursday ahead of the exams.
“He told me to go to the teacher who is in charge of the hair committee to ask if my hair is appropriate. I was told to neaten it.
“On Friday again I was sent to the same teacher who told me to tie it into a ponytail or push it back somehow. The teacher then told me to relax my hair to make it more beautiful.”
Unathi said she told the teacher she did not want to put any chemicals in her hair.
“The teacher then started putting her hands into my hair, saying she will make it pretty. “She pulled at my hair and tried to tie it up, and even when I said ‘ow’ she continued.”
Unathi said she would not be changing her hair and was determined to write her English exam tomorrow.
“If they do not allow me to write then I will call my father. But I am going to write my exams with my hair like this,” she said.
But Cairncross said the situation had been blown out of proportion with other pupils spurring Unathi on.
“The pupils are emotional right now, but the fact is that no one was grabbed by the hair.” He
said the school would never chase a pupil away, but a code of conduct dictated that pupils should be neat and presentable.
“Children can be defiant and are always wanting to push the boundaries. If she comes to school with her hair in the same way we will have to see what the code of conduct states.
“We are looking at every aspect of the school uniform, from hair to clothing to nails.”
Cairncross said instead of focusing on Unathi’s hair, pupils should be concentrating on their exams.
“They need to sit for their exams and that should be the priority. This school is a pioneer when it comes to change and transformation in education,” he said.
Also defending the school’s decision, Joubert said they were not targeting black pupils.
“All we asked her is if she can’t make her hair more acceptable. It looks as if someone who got up in the morning and did not brush their hair.
“I told her that her hair looks beautiful, but it does not fit the uniform or school environment.”
Unathi’s father, Mbukeli Gongxeka, 42, said he was disappointed with the school.
“I really believe it is a racial issue and this makes me angry because there is nothing wrong with her natural hair,” he said.
“Telling her to relax her hair is interfering with our culture and infringing on her rights.”
He said if the school barred his daughter from writing the exams they would have to face him.
Eastern Cape education department spokesman Malibongwe Mtima said a district official would be sent to investigate and compile a report.
“It is against the law for a school to discriminate [against] learners based on their hair, colour, race, religion and sexuality.
“If this is the school policy then we will push for that policy to be reviewed. It is this pupil’s right to write her exams and if she is restricted she has the right to open a case against the school,” he said.
A number of pupils have rallied around Unathi saying they were shocked by the school’s stance. Sihle Zinganto, 18, a Grade 12 pupil, said the incident had left her hating herself.
“What has happened at school has made me doubt my pride. My afro is something that I love about myself, but what they have said has made me feel ugly and has made me hate myself.”
Equal Education spokeswoman Nombulelo Nyathela offered the organisation’s full support to pupils at Pretoria Girls’ High and Lawson Brown High.
“One of our biggest challenges is the fact that school governing bodies at certain former Model C schools make these rules which pupils are expected to abide by.”
But she said in many cases these rules were discriminatory and unconstitutional.