'Black hair' rules in schools: A reality check

John Kane-Berman on what the principals of well-performing no-fee schools think about the matter

Schools of learning or schools of fashion?

This columnist happens to have been visiting several no-fee schools in poor communities in the last fortnight. They were chosen by their better-than-average matric pass rates, and the idea was to find out the secrets of their success. Many of the pupils in these schools rely on their school for their main meal of the day. Many of the parents are illiterate. Some of the pupils live by themselves.

Without any prompting, four of the principals of the schools identified school dress as one of the keys to success. Two of them did so before the recent mini rebellion at a Pretoria high school over whether or not pupils should be allowed to wear "skinny pants". Two of them also referred to the controversy over artificial hair "extensions" in the form of "dreadlocks" at another Pretoria school last year.  

Pupils at a public high school in a West Rand township visited two weeks ago were inspected by a "patroller" as they entered through the school gates. The headmistress explained that this was to ensure that they did not wear "branded clothing" instead of the school uniform, which included ties on boys. Pupils who wore such clothing tended to show off, which she did not think appropriate when 40% of all the pupils lived in shacks. These "show-offs" also tended to be more rebellious.

The principal of an independent secondary school in Orange Farm which charges minimal fees was equally emphatic that uniforms helped maintain discipline. When pupils made a fuss about trousers or fought for fancy hairstyles appropriate for "dancing in nightclubs", they were forgetting that the main aim of the school was education. There was far too much emphasis in South Africa on the rights of pupils, and too little on their obligation to study, this headmaster said.

The headmistress of a high school in the North West province visited last week said uniforms were "very, very, very important". Many of the pupils in this school lived in shacks or RDP houses or on farms. Until the North West education department provided buses, pupils living on farms could not afford to come to extra classes on Saturdays.   

Uniforms helped to "make them all feel the same". The headmistress added, "We specify ordinary black school shoes, and will not allow fashionable shoes". Even poor pupils sometimes came to school in "takkies" costing R1 800, while other poor children could not afford any shoes. She said she had fought to stop the wearing of takkies. She was still fighting to stop the wearing of fashionable trousers short enough to show off socks.

This headmistress also prohibited dreadlocks and other "expensive" extensions. Girls with long hair had to tie it up in a bun. Baseball caps were prohibited. Pupils needed to concentrate on their work, not inspect one another's clothing or hairstyles. She added that official policy was that uniforms had to be worn, but that schools could choose their own.

A fourth principal, who runs an independent school adjoining a Johannesburg township,

said her "boys must be boys" with normal hairstyles. Girls were not allowed to wear earrings or hair extensions. When there was a demand from some of the pupils to be allowed to wear hair extensions, she called parents to a meeting. They pointed out that they struggled to pay R480 a year in fees, and were certainly not willing to pay for extensions.

That put the matter to rest, said this headmistress, and hairstyles would not be discussed again. 

Regulations about dress and hairstyles have led to accusations of racism by some of the pupils in mixed schools, never mind parents and journalists and politicians eager to sniff out racism wherever they can. Other pupils claim that school uniforms are a remnant of apartheid and a violation of human rights.

Judging by their remarks about the importance of uniforms in ensuring discipline and creating a feeling of equality at school, the principals cited above would simply laugh off these notions.

* John Kane-Berman is a policy fellow at the IRR, a think-tank that promotes political and economic freedom.