Let's Think

Hairstyle issue throwing baby out with the bath water?

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The fact that the hairstyles of pupils at Pretoria Girls High School became a national issue is symptomatic of deeper problems in the South African nation.

It is, firstly, an indication of the extent to which we as a nation have thus far failed to come to grips with our diversity.

But it is also indicative of how society at large, and its institutions, are battling to come to grips with the ‘small town’ environment that modern communication technology has imposed on us all – an environment in which anyone’s business can become everybody’s business.

The events at the Pretoria school reminded me of a ‘hair rebellion’ I was involved in more than fifty years ago at my own school.

It was in the mid-1960s and during the heyday of the British pop group the Beatles, who, with their longish hair combed forward in a fringe over their foreheads, were dominating the hit parades on radio stations.

One or two of our matric and standard nine (now grade 11) friends adopted the Beatle hairstyle, to the consternation of most teachers and the headmaster. They were called into the office and punished for breaking the school’s rules on hair.

The next day, in solidarity with our friends, a large group of the matrics and standard nines pitched up at school with all our hair shaved off. We were ridiculed by most of the teachers, but were mostly heroes among our fellow students, including the girls.

Barely a week later, the whole affair belonged to history and was forgotten, but some of the bonds of friendship established last to this day.

And that is one of the things that seems to be missing from the Pretoria Girls High incident. I might be mistaken, but as far as I know, there were no signs of solidarity from present white pupils with the girls who felt victimised – maybe because it was from the word go treated as a race issue.

As can be expected in the ‘small town’ environment of the social media, it not only immediately became a national issue but even made it onto the international news scene. And some political figures could not resist the temptation to jump onto the bandwagon.

Some sober words

Amid all the hot air there were, to her credit, some sobering words from the Minister of Basic Education, Angie Motshekga, who said in a statement:  “… there was nothing controversial about the Pretoria Girls High School hair policy controversy. “The pupils, however, should not be afraid to raise their concerns about the policy rules but it should be a matter tackled internally through dialogue.”

According to Motshekga there is nothing wrong with the policy on hair as it is part of the school's code of conduct and has got nothing to do with racism.

She added that schools' policies differ, so the matter should be dealt with by the school-based structures, including parents' bodies. She also pointed out that provincial education departments are not mandated by the South African Schools Act (SASA) to review or approve the learner codes of conduct in schools.

It is also interesting that two schools in Soweto, including Meadowlands High School famous for its prominence during the 1976 student uprising, did come out in defence of Pretoria Girls High.

Meadowlands’ principal, Ntuli Hlayisani, said he did not find any fault with the Pretoria school’s stance, unless parents were not consulted.

Lessons to learn

First among the lessons to be learnt from the incident, is that community institutions must realise that they are no longer islands and should, accordingly, manage their affairs with great care.

Secondly, a school is a community institution and parents’ responsibility does not end when their kids enter the school gate. School rules can often be petty and indiscriminate. Parents have a duty to remain involved.

In the final analysis a school’s main aim should be to assist pupils to develop their potential as individuals. Maybe more can and should be done to also develop the value of group bonding on a positive basis to accommodate the members as individuals.

We think

We think it would be a bad mistake to use the Pretoria Girls incident as an excuse for the centralised provincial education department to prescribe school rules for all schools and take the responsibility out of the hands of individual school communities.

That will be a case of throwing the baby out with the bath water.

by Piet Coetzer

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