During this post-election period there has been the most amazing concentration on identity manifested largely in a debate about hair politics for schoolgirls.
Writing, speaking and debating have both a political function and transformative potential. So I write with the passion of a feminist politician who has a radical commitment to equality, freedom and fairness focussed on women’s rights in the largely patriarchal, chauvinist milieu that informs South African codes of conduct.
Hair politics has been the topic of solid research by academics like Zimitri Erasmus, who argues that it is necessary to explore the power relations on which identity and – in this case, policy – such as codes of conduct around whose hair is culturally normative. It has long been the norm to scaffold policy on the norms of whiteness in South Africa.
For example during the time of slavery, the dress code was based on European and British norms, and slave women’s dress code was informed by a necessity to appear lesser than – or not equal to – white women. This was codified in policies that prescribed the type of fabric, jewellery and hairstyles slave women were allowed, and the dreadful ownership and commodification of slave women’s bodies for broodstock, labour and other purposes.
Structural inequality of this nature is referenced by Steve Biko in I Write What I Like (1978), entrenched by years of commodification and currently manifest in fascinating discussions about hair policy at historically white high schools. Typically power and control seems to problematise blackness and reference whiteness as normative.
Hence many media comments about Afros, and requirements for neat and tidy hair and hair that should be straightened/relaxed. Surely the time has come for all South Africans to embrace difference and celebrate what is unique and special in our heritage without relying on destructive stereotypes?
As we head towards Heritage Day please commit to accept only those policies that conform to the founding values of our constitution and the principles that inform our Bill of Rights. The time has come to celebrate (not “tolerate”) diversity, and to foreground girls’ and women’s rights!