This piece in its edited form was published on the website OkayAfrica under a different title. This is the original piece.
On Sunday night, I was casually scrolling through my Twitter feed when I saw the picture that has since reverberated across the country. The picture was of 13 year old Zulaikha Patel with her arms in a defiant cross in the air, framed by her massive, beautiful afro. From the moment I saw that picture, and heard of the protests happening at Pretoria Girl’s High, I knew it was not just about the black students’ right to wear their hair the way it naturally grows out of their heads. It was about the institutional racism that permeates Model C schools and suffocates the black children caught in those spaces every day. It was about a battle that I only knew too well as I had spent 12 years of my life fighting it.
I had spent the first 5 years of my life at a model C school in Sandton, Johannesburg and then spent the rest of my schooling at an elite private girls’ school in Parktown. I too had been subjected to rules which forbade wearing my natural hair, watched my fellow black classmates get detention for speaking to one another in their home languages, and in many ways both big and small felt my blackness being undermined constantly. The effect that these schools had on me was a deep sense of insecurity both in my blackness and in my sense of self. I was constantly in a space where blackness was degraded often through insidious throw away phrases like “this is not Soweto” when us black girls made too much noise or through my white classmates putting on a “blaccent” whenever they were pretending to be poor or ignorant for a humorous effect. It was degraded in bigger ways too, such as a teacher defending colonialism and saying those who were against it were “absurd”. Or a group of black pupils using the library the same way other students did everyday being kicked out for making it look “untidy”.
So, when Patel’s picture came out, I felt two things. The first was a deep sense of understanding of the situation she finds herself in. The second was a deep sense of shame. Over the past few days many have already commented that we should not be romanticising the protest action. Instead we should be outraged that little girls, and just how small Patel is was one of the very first things that struck me, are having to fight a battle that should have been fought 22 years ago, and if not 22 years ago then it should have been fought by us.
As a student there is very little power that one has in a model C or private school. However, as alumni we have a little more say, especially since our schools are always asking us for donations. Not only do we as alumni have more political power within the actual schools, we have an amount of institutional knowledge and memory of the institution that current pupils may not have. As adults, we are in a better position to deal with the backlash such a campaign would garner than a group of 13 to 14 year old girls still dealing with the emotional turmoil and self-discovery that comes with puberty. Already, the girls involved in the protests have been accused of being disruptive, undisciplined, caring more about fashion than schooling, among other accusations from the very vocal naysayers of the protest action. What the backlash both from their peers and from critics around the country could be doing to these girls’ self-esteems is something we have yet to discover.
Rather than focusing on the extraordinary bravery of the young girls, bearing in mind that this does deserve to be commended as it did take an incredible amount of courage many of us did not have in school to do this, we should be asking ourselves how much we have failed for a group of 13 year old girls to get to the point where they had to take matters into their own hands. Or perhaps, as the black alumni of model C and private schools, we should be asking ourselves if we could do more. Should we heading back to our schools and challenge rules such as the Codes of Conduct which not only forbid natural hairstyles, but any cultural or religious ornament, garment, or hairstyle that does not fit neatly into the colonial often Christian culture of these schools? Should we be going back and demanding that blackness not just be treated as an aesthetic to be whipped out for the annual cultural evening but as a lived reality that demands to be given the same respect both in the school’s culture and in the curriculum?
These conversations are already starting to be had by black alumni, and I’m hoping these protests will encourage more of us to look back at our highs chools and seriously consider changing the environment there. Recently, I was rereading the book series that spawned the hit television series Game of Thrones and one of the lines that a priestess said in a prophecy was “to go forward you must go back”. I truly believe that as black alumni in particular, if we wish to see an end to institutional racism in our country and move forward from the injustices of the past then we must go back and start at our former high schools.