‘Hairgate’ protests reach fever pitch

Sans Souci High School pupils during a protest last week.

As claims of racist and discriminatory policies at Newlands’ Sans Souci High School continue to dominate the headlines, the Tatler spoke to a number of southern suburbs schools to find out what was contained in their dress codes and how they ensured it was fair to all pupils.

Many of the schools who spoke to us said they meet regularly with the student body to review policies to ensure the considerations of both pupils and staff were taken into account.

The Sans Souci protests, which have seen pupils demand an end to hair rules imposed on black pupils as well as rules prohibiting the speaking of indigenous languages, reached boiling point this week when pupils demanded the immediate dismissal of principal Charmaine Murray “without pay or benefits” as well as the all-male governing body.

Education MEC Debbie Schafer received a memorandum from the pupils and said her department would be investigating the allegations.

On Tuesday September 6, the situation intensified after allegations emerged that Sans Souci officials and the Western Cape Education Department (WCED) had been aware of complaints relating to discrimatory policies at the school, but had failed to act on them.

Greshen Chetty, of Access to Justice, was quoted as saying that issues of discriminatory practice had been raised with the school and department, but nothing had been done.

Mr Chetty, who represents pupils in mediation with the department and other stakeholders, also claimed that teachers at the school who reported alleged discrimination to the principal would be demoted, removed or decided to resign.
One former teacher, Paula Gerard, told the Cape Times that her contract had not been renewed after she challenged Ms Murray over “racist policies”.

Nicole Jones, who was Sans Souci’s 2014 head girl, has also been outspoken about the matter, telling the media that when she was at the school, prefects had been tasked with cracking down on pupils speaking Xhosa.

She used her Twitter account to declare that “On behalf of the girl I was, the woman I am would like to apologise. I am sorry my voice wasn’t loud enough.”

Yesterday, the Tatler sent questions to Ms Schafer’s spokeswoman Jessica Shelver about the allegations, and for a copy of Sans Souci’s school rules, but they were unable to respond before this edition went to print.

Herschel Girls’ School head Stuart West said the school reviewed its hair policy last year in collaboration with the Herschel student representative council, known as “Forum”, the school’s Social Justice Society as well as outside consultants.

“In the wake of recent protests, on Tuesday (August 30) the hair policy was once again tabled at a Forum meeting, and the girl representatives recorded they felt that the policy was fair and inclusive,” Mr West said.

“The student voice is important and the Herschel Forum (SRC) meets bi-weekly to discuss the affairs and policies of the school.”

The school’s hair policy for 2016 states that: “Hair must be out of the face; hair reaching below the collar must be neatly secured; hair that has been treated with artificial colouring must be uniform in colour and considered a natural hair colour; accessories to match school colours; a hair style that inappropriately draws attention is not permitted; and where a girl has lice, she is obliged to take action and remove it before returning to school.”

One of the consequences of the so-called “Hairgate” protests has been a number of questions being raised not only about hair style and length, but also about whether dress code and uniformity still have a place in the modern world. Since the protests began, some have argued that school uniform has no bearing on how a pupil performs in the classroom.

Asked his opinion on this, Mr West said the school was very proud of its uniform and the “legacy, history and identity that it represents”.

“In a girls’ educational environment, one of the key benefits of a uniform is that it removes an outer picture of a girl and forces you to look beyond the external and focus on the inner picture, talents and strengths of a young women. I agree that it has nothing to do with performance, but more about identity and people valuing your inner being and not external dress.”

Westerford High School in Newlands also engages regularly with pupils on matters of school policy.

“At this school, we review all policies on a fairly regular basis and very thoroughly. The process mostly starts at Grade Council level (the whole grade including teachers) and agreed upon items of question or any suggestions are taken to school council (consisting of representatives from all grades) and raised by the grade representatives,” principal Rob le Roux said.

He said because policies could become outdated, necessitating regular reviews, pupils should have a say in how these policies were determined.

Mr Le Roux also believed the design and wearing of a school uniform was widely acceptable standard practice in schools and was the responsibility of the school governing body to develop and monitor.

“Certain schools will have certain rules and regulations – as will all institutions in society. Uniform regulations should, however, be based on practicality, affordability and comfort. There is no place anywhere for any form of discrimination on any grounds.”

Rustenburg Girls’ High School in Rosebank also believes pupils should be given “a voice”.

Acting principal Susan Schnetler said there were a number of different channels that pupils could use if they wished to make suggestions or bring something to teachers’ attention.

“Reviewing school values, based on respect and recognition, is an ongoing process and the RCL (representative council of learners) plays a key role in getting input of all the girls. For some time now, girls have been allowed to wear their hair in a variety of styles, as long as it is neat,” Ms Schnetler said.

“The school conducts exit surveys with the matrics and their parents annually, and in these surveys they are also specifically asked to give their opinion about the school rules and suggest changes. In 2015, we also conducted a similar survey with the Grade 8 and 9 learners. This practice allows the school to move with the times and resulted in changes to some of the rules at the start of this year.”

Mike van Haght, principal of Cannons Creek Independent School in Pinelands, said the school expressed its identity as a “new generation school” and thefore “chose a uniform which is South African in its style, comfortable and durable yet smart and distinctive.”

School uniform was, by definition, a unifying factor and eliminated many of the problems that arose in a no-uniform situation, such as competition and cost.

The Sans Souci protests have sparked lively online discussions with outpourings from numerous old girls, some of whom have been included in an online petition:https://awethu.amandla.mobi/petitions/thetruthwewillproclaim.

By yesterday, Wednesday September 7, it had been signed by 1 570 people.
You can follow discussion about the pupils’ campaign on Twitter by using the hashtag #thetruthwewillproclaim