Sara Gon questions Panyaza Lesufi's conduct, and the media's rush to judgement, in the outrage over school hair rules
All may not be as it seems: the hair issue
Pretoria High School for Girls was founded in 1902 and is a formerly white, government, all-girls, suburban school. It had an excellent reputation, academic and otherwise, and is one of the GDE’s leading schools. One indication of the regard in which it was previously held is the fact that a former headmistress, Ms Anne van Zyl, was recruited to head Oprah Winfrey’s Academy for Girls for four years from 2010 to 2013.
On her appointment it was reported that “Van Zyl is highly regarded within the education fraternity” with one of the highlights of her career “being her leadership role in Pretoria Girls' High [she was headmistress between 1988 and 1995], the first white state schoolc in the then Northern Transvaal (now Gauteng) to open its doors to all races.”
In late August however the school was caught in a firestorm of outrage generated by allegations of ‘racism’ relating mainly (but not only) to the application of the school’s code of conduct relating to hair. As the story broke on social media on Sunday 28 August 2016 – under the hashtag #StopRacismAtPretoriaGirlsHigh - Gauteng MEC Panyaza Lesufi announced his intention to visit the school to “sort out” the problem.
The following day he held a meeting at the school whereby a number of young girls aired their complaints against the school to both Lesufi and the media, who were in attendance (see videos below). Lesufi promised an independent investigation into the allegations, which has yet to report. The controversy then crossed over into the local and then the international media.
The media, in its reporting and commentary on the story, seemed to take these allegations as gospel. Few journalists asked why they were hearing only one side of the story - GDE forbids any staff member of a school from talking to the media, on any subject, ever - or considered the potential implications for the reliability of what they were reporting and commenting on.
One exception was Chris Barron of the Sunday Times. In So Many Questions (September 4 2016) he asked Lesufi why he had banned the school from talking to the press. Lesufi said he had not taken that decision. Barron said that that’s what the school had told him. Why would they lie? Lesufi said, “Because they’re under pressure. They underestimated the impact of the problem. They underestimated the effect of their code of conduct on learners. They also underestimated the backlash from South Africans. That is why I think they are trying to take cover.”
The school management would certainly be under a lot of pressure, but there is no reason that they should have underestimated the effect of their Code of Conduct. By law all policies drafted by School Governing Bodies (SGBs) have to be sent to the GDE for confirmation. The Code complies with the laws that Lesufi administers. For him to assert that “the backlash from South Africans is why I think they are trying to take cover” is dishonest.
If the school is “trying to take cover” it is because Lesufi aired the allegations against them while disallowing them from defending themselves in public and because the MEC has shown no support for his own department’s school staff.
Barron asked him why he had invited the press. Lesufi denied doing so; he had just “found them there”. Eventually he admitted that the press knew he was going to be there because he said so on Twitter!
Barron also asked Lesufi whether it was appropriate for a government minister to make a personal visit to a school over an issue like this. His answer: “I’ve got a soft spot for children. If children cry for help I will go and protect those children. I really believe there is no one that must incur pain or inhumanity As long as there is pain I must be there to heal.”
Lesufi’s appeal to cheap emotionalism and expedient politicking is distasteful, if not outright creepy.
Lesufi admitted that Pretoria Girls is one of Gauteng’s best performing schools and that was why he intervened immediately. “It is competing with the best private schools in the province. So I am protecting their integrity. That is why I intervened.”
“Surely you knew that intervening the way you did would attract a storm of negative publicity for the school?” asked Barron. Said Lesufi: “So should I therefore work in a world where the media is closed out? I’m not going to do that. I’m a transparent person.”
Greg Nicholson in "Pretoria Girls High: A protest against sacrificed cultures and identities" (Daily Maverick 30 August 2016) wrote heartrendingly about the experiences of the pupils, particularly 17 year old matric students Malaika Maoh Eyoh and Palesa Sedibe*. They were tired. They were in their fifth year at the school and had seen black students, even teachers, teased and humiliated, “broken as they were forced to sacrifice their cultures and identities”, they said.
We need to ask: when did the girls first raise their allegations? With whom were they raised? Why was nothing done about them? If the allegations were investigated, what was the outcome? If the school was tardy, did the pupils and their parents approach the GDE? If they did, what response did they get? What investigations were undertaken? What were the outcomes? The most important question is: where were their parents in all this? Why are these girls being left to fight battles that the parents should be fighting? It is worth noting in this regard that this is a school attended by many of the daughters of the ANC governing elite.
If Eyoh and Sedibe’s allegations are true, then extremely serious action has to be taken. But if they are either untrue or exaggerated, the teachers and administrators have been unfairly turned into pariahs. They could lose their jobs and become unemployable. Eyoh and Sedibe said: “Then a black student wore a doek to eat at the hostels [on the Friday night before the protest]. It was as if she had worn a hoodie or beanie to dinner. In solidarity, students paraded around the hostels in doeks all night. It was the last straw.”
So what exactly happened on the Friday night to ignite such an incendiary situation over the weekend and into the Monday morning? We need to know.Nicholson didn’t interview the girls’ parents to find out why they persisted in sending their daughters to such an unenlightened school. Nor does he appear to have ascertained what they had done to resolve the issues faced by their minor daughters.
Zulaikha Patel, the petite 13-year-old with the enormous afro has literally become the poster girl for the protest. She appeared with Angela Davis, the radical US activist, feminist, scholar and academic who delivered the 17th annual Steve Biko Memorial Lecture at Unisa.
One claim that Patel made to Lesufi was that she had presented a speech in a lesson where she said that black women did not get the same opportunities as white women in South Africa.
According to her account she was interrupted by the class and told that she was being racist. The teacher said the same thing, adding that her talk had lacked research. This story was repeated by Greg Nicholson in the Daily Maverick, the implication undoubtedly was that the teacher’s comment was racist and unacceptably critical. But what if the speech was indeed racist and lacked research? Without having heard all sides it is impossible to know.
What if Zulaikha Patel was the real source of friction in the class? According to her own family she already had to move from three other schools before she started high school at Pretoria Girls. Apparently a girl in her class asked her if they could swop places because she could not see the board beyond her afro. The girl was asked whether the only reason she had asked that was because Patel was black. Anyone who has seen photographs of Patel has seen that her afro is excessively large.
The school’s policy on hair styles is as follows:
"6.4 General Appearance
All hair must be brushed. If hair is long enough to be tied back, it must be tied back neatly in a ponytail, no lower than the nape of the neck, with a navy blue elastic.
Ponytails may not be visible from the front. No crocodile, banana or other fancy clips are allowed. All hair must be off the face and not be in the eyes. Hair buns must be tight with no loose hair and have to be worn in the neck, and not on top of the head. The hair may not cover the elastic.
No dyeing, bleaching, highlighting, colouring, colour washing, colour rinsing, relaxing of hair causing a change in colour or shaving of hair in any way is allowed.
Cornrows, natural dreadlocks and singles/braids (with or without extensions) are allowed, provided they are a maximum of 10mm in diameter. Singles/braids must be the same length and be the natural colour of the girl's hair. Braids shorter than collar length must be kept off the face with a plain navy or tortoise shell alice band. Longer braids must be tied back. No beads or decorations in the hair. Cornrows must run parallel from each other from the forehead to the nape of the neck. No patterned cornrows.
All styles should be conservative, neat and in keeping with a school uniform. No eccentric/fashion styles will be allowed.
All hair elastics and ribbons must be navy blue. Alice bands or slides may be tortoiseshell or navy blue. No hair ornaments of any kind are permitted. No fashion items may be worn. No crocheted hairbands are allowed. Hair bands, which may have a maximum width of 5cm, may not be worn to cover any part of the ears."
The italicised section is quoted by Nicholson, presumably with the intention of illustrating its inherent bias, although he didn’t say so. But there is no racism there, nor in the section as a whole. The policy may be strict. In this day and age it may be too strict but it is not racist. And it applies to all the girls at the school. The policy doesn’t deal directly with afros at all.
A report by Lizeka Tandwa on News24 -“We don't allow braids at all - Soweto principal” - reported meanwhile that two Soweto high school principals have sided with Pretoria Girls in the debate about black girls’ hair, saying pupils need to abide by a schools' code of conduct. Meadowlands High School's Ntuli Hlayisani said he did not find any fault with the Pretoria school’s stance, unless parents were not consulted. “Rights are rights and we need to respect them; they are in the Constitution. But if you take your child to school and they know the rules of the school and halfway through their school years, they now find fault with the school. I am not sure if this is right.”
Another Soweto principal, who wished to remain anonymous, said no braids or dreadlocks were allowed at her high school. “Does this mean that we are racist? These rules are explained to parents on the first day of school and even when they apply for school. We need to support the rules and make sure kids follow the rules. If it applies to all, then let it be.”
Three of the nine parents on Pretoria’s SGB are black. The three learner representatives are black: the Head Girl and two Heads of the Residences. What happened at the SGB meetings when these issues were raised? The IDSO from the GDE (the inspector responsible for the school) is black. Almost everyone at management level at the GDE is black. What did they say or do when these issues were first raised or at all?
Parents see school rules as crucial for imposing discipline on their children. Many parents find their teenage children difficult to manage: they find them disrespectful, ill-mannered and undisciplined. For them schools are places where discipline is enforced or reinforced.
Discipline is not innate. Discipline has to be imposed on a child to foster the self-discipline necessary to deal with the challenges of an adult world. Obviously different children need different levels of discipline, but children are not adults. Teenage brains are not fully developed and hormonal changes make emotional, physical and intellectual changes very difficult to manage.
So was this controversy about hair policies? Was it even about racism? Parents whose children are unhappy at a school usually move them to another school? Why did the parents not remove their daughters from the school if they were so unhappy? There are lots of options.
Panyaza Lesufi is always on hand when the slightest whiff of anti-black racism is alleged. It matters not whether racism is proven, as long as Lesufi condemns the institution in the full glare of the media before he has the facts. Once the coverage dies down, no one is the wiser and Lesufi says nothing. Reputations are ruined.
*Nicholson gives their names because their parents gave him permission to publish their names.
Below are the two videos of the ad hoc hearings held by Gauteng MEC for Education Panyaza Lesufi at Pretoria High School for Girls on 29 August 2016.
Although the identities of the girls were protected (many later openly spoke to the media) they were allowed to make highly damaging and untested allegations against various named teachers and the school administration, in full view of the media.
The rules of Lesufi’s department prohibit those same teachers, and the school administration, from publicly defending themselves, on pain of dismissal. - PW