Letting their hair down

Siphosethu Xamlashe, 18, welcomes the gender neutral changes to Westerford's uniform policy.

Westerford High School’s decision to adopt a gender neutral uniform policy pertaining to hair and jewellery regulations has been heralded as progressive by its school community.

Grade 11 pupil and next year’s head girl, Siphosethu Xamlashe, 18, welcomed the news, saying: “The hair and jewellery rule will be the same for girls and boys at the school. The school has adopted a gender neutral element to its uniform policy which means pupils will not be placed in gender boxes any longer.”

Ms Xamlashe said the decision, which will take effect in the upcoming academic year, was made after a thorough consultative process with pupils and parents.

In August, scores of pupils at Pretoria Girls’ High clashed with school management over their policies relating to race and hair rules.

Pupils put racism in the spotlight in the #StopRacismAtPretoriaGirlsHigh campaign, which led to Gauteng Education MEC Panyaza Lesufi intervening to ease tensions.

This was also followed by protests at Sans Souci Girls’ High School, not far from Westerford, where pupils said the code of conduct was discriminatory and was prejudiced against their natural hair.

Ms Xamlashe, who dons a “small Afro”, said at Westerford it’s not an issue of race but rather that hair and jewellery rules be the same for both sexes.

“I have an Afro and I have never gotten any backlash from the school’s management for deciding to wear my natural hair,” she said.

She said as long as their hair is “neat and presentable”, it’s acceptable.

“At the moment, only girls are allowed to wear jewellery. Next year both sexes will be allowed to wear either gold or silver studs or loop earrings,” she explained.

Graeme Dorrington, the outgoing School Governing Body (SGB) chairman for the past five years, said during 2016 many schools have had to dig deep to address issues relating to privilege, hairstyles, racism and a lack of transformation.

“At a different level, there has been heightened focus on addressing issues such as gender fluidity, gender awareness, uniform changes and so on. Westerford is a forward thinking school and these burning issues have been on the agenda for a long time and have during the course of this year been vigorously debated,” he said.

Principal Rob le Roux shared their sentiments saying that the school community has been debating these issues for years and that this year they felt it was time to review their uniform policy. “During the latter part of year we added two additional questions to our survey pertaining to jewellery and hair. Parents completed an online survey and pupils did the survey in class,” he said.

Ms Dorrington believes the decisions are unifying, and will help to remove some of the barriers hindering pupils from expressing their cultural and gender identities. “We know that there will be some parents who will be concerned about the changes but we believe the changes will enhance rather than detract from students’ academic experience. We also believe that Westerford pupils are mature enough not to abuse these new rules and will work with the school as it implements the changes,” he said.

Jessica Shelver, spokesperson for MEC for Education Debbie Schafer, was contacted for comment, and said: “We don’t have any comment in this regard. School governing bodies determine their Code of Conduct and if their Code of Conduct is in line with the values of the Constitution, and representative of the school community, it wouldn’t be proper for the MEC to comment.”