A highly charged and emotional meeting between pupils, staff, parents and angry community members at Lawson Brown High School in Port Elizabeth yesterday has forced the school to review its policies and rules about hairstyles for black pupils.
The meeting was the result of a massive outcry after Grade 12 pupil Unathi Gongxeka said she felt violated and victimised when teachers allegedly told her she would not be allowed to write her trial exams until she straightened or tied up her afro hairstyle.
The school denied it had instructed her to straighten her hair, but did confirm that it had informed pupils that afros would not be allowed during the exams.
Lawson Brown is one of three schools in the country where pupils and staff have clashed over hairstyles.
Gauteng Education MEC Panyaza Lesufi said a similar furore over hairstyles at Pretoria Girls’ High had been resolved after he met with the school’s governing body, who had agreed to amend the code of conduct.
In Bloemfontein, parents at St Michael’s School for Girls confronted the principal following claims of black girls being subjected to a swimming-cap hair inspection.
According to the group of parents, the principal took responsibility for instructing staff to do the test, which sought to identify hairstyles which would not fit into a swimming cap.
The test will be discontinued.
Yesterday, several Lawson Brown pupils cried, while others shouted and screamed at staff and principal Donovan Cairncross.
Pupils, community members and EFF members also jumped on stage during a speech by acting district director George Lukwe – in which he apologised to Unathi and other pupils who had been victimised.
Several people tried to grab the microphone from Lukwe, while others shouted and called for Cairncross to apologise instead.
Arguments erupted on stage, with people jostling, shoving and pushing.
Lukwe said he was apologising on behalf of all education department officials, including Cairncross, but this was met with loud booing and jeers.
“We have been made aware that the school has made an announcement in respect of its policy about hair, particularly afro hair,” he said.
“We want to put it very clearly, we do not allow any school to rule against that type of hair. If this is the hair of African people, it must be accepted.”
Lukwe said they would also not accept any other schools in the PE district suspending pupils because of their hair.
“Here we are talking about natural, African, black hair,” he said to cheers and applause from the packed school hall.
Cairncross was eventually allowed to speak.
“An eye-opener has occurred. We have seen things in a different light,” he said.
“We as teachers have been implementing the code of conduct and we do realise . . . it is hurtful to the majority of us. “So as from today [yesterday], the clauses relating to hair . . . as claimed here, to be anti-black or racist, will be removed and we will sit down and meet. “I want to apologise if I have hurt the feelings of any pupil . . . No child will be taken out of class and all pupils will be allowed to write,” Cairncross said.
But several pupils broke down in tears and said they did not believe Cairncross was being sincere.
“He is still trying to intimidate us,” one Grade 12 pupil said, with tears streaming down her face.
“While he was on stage he gave me and my friend this look . . . that means he is not finished with us. He says we can come to him, but he will not hear us. He is protecting the teachers who are abusing us.”
A Grade 11 pupil, also in tears, said: “Nothing will change. We will still be made to feel as if us blacks are ill-mannered, undisciplined and disgusting. We are tired of the racism at this school. No action will be taken and I do not believe his apology.”
Lukwe said he was shocked by the events which unfolded at the assembly.
“We will be compiling a report to send to head office but, yes, I am shocked,” he said.
“We are convening a meeting with the principal where we hope we will be able to come up with a plan to [relieve] the tensions between him and the pupils. “We are going to set up a committee of parents, staff and pupils and listen to concerns from everyone.”
Unathi said she was overwhelmed by the support from community members, parents, pupils and the EFF.
“I feel that the message definitely went through to them. They can now see that many of us are in pain,” she said.
The drama unfolded at about 8am when EFF members picketed outside the school.
Some pupils later joined the picketing while angry residents and parents arrived at the school, demanding to speak to Cairncross about the hair policy.
The EFF members continued protesting outside the school’s main gate, blocking motorists who attempted to enter.
They later entered the schoolyard and protested in the parking area.
EFFWard 28 branch chairman Siyabulela Siyongowana said: “We are here to support the learners and pledge solidarity. “The learners are extremely hurt by this and it is sad that in this day and age black learners are still being subjected to this type of racism at former Model C schools. ”
“Blacks should not be discouraged from attending these schools as we all know the situation at township schools. “Some are even being told to go back to the townships.”
Meanwhile, Cairncross and deputy principal Knip Joubert were holding a heated meeting with parents and angry community members, who demanded he respond to allegations of racism.
Cairncross barred the media from the meeting.
Community member Nozibele Qamngana said: “This is not about hair. Pupils are being victimised by staff because they are black. They are being told not to shout like this or talk like that. It has to change.”
PE businesswoman Nosi Ncoyo said: “The issues surrounding Pretoria Girls’ High and other schools in South Africa are broader than just hair or neatness, otherwise there would no derogatory racial comments to black learners.”
“This is about the pain black people wake up to every day to fit in to an environment that dishonours them to protect whiteness at all costs. “In most schools the code of conduct is meant for a black child to assimilate into a white culture as it is regarded as the ideal standard of beauty and perfection.”
“Our children have to constantly explain themselves to white people who dictate on how they should speak, think, behave, dress and wear their hair. “We must gear up for more eruptions of this nature as they will resurface if we continue to bury our heads in the sand and refuse to point out and deal with the elephant in the room, which is racism.”
Nwabisa Tsotshobe, who was also at the school to speak to Cairncross, said: “It is not just about hair.”
“It is the fact that black children are made to feel as if they are not good enough. “They are made to feel as though they are less. “He [Cairncross] says they have to be neat, but he means they need to put chemicals on their hair to make it straight.”