Why South African Schoolgirls Are Protesting Like Their Mothers Before Them

The protest has gained support across the country.

It's been more than two decades since its abolishment, but the ugly vestiges of apartheid in South Africa linger on. 

At Pretoria Girls High, taking on institutionalized racism has fallen to the students who recently launched a protest against reported discrimination towards black schoolgirls. While the protest is about larger racial discrimination, it is centered around an unofficial hair policy at school where the girls say they are frequently asked to keep their hair straight

A former student, Tiisetso Phetla, confirmed the school's hair policy with a local reporter. 

"The system does not allow for black girls to have Afros," she said. "It wasn't written in the code of conduct, but they tell you that your hair is very untidy and it's not appropriate with the school uniform — you must flatten it somehow, and you need to make yourself look presentable... Why must you be apologetic for being a black African child in South Africa?"


A petition to end the hair regulation has reached more than 22,000 signatures. "Girls attending the school have been forced to straighten their hair; are accused of conspiring when standing in groups and face other intolerable comments and actions," the petition read.

"We stand in solidarity with the learners, who marched at the school on the 26th to say enough is enough. It is unacceptable that in a country in which Black people are a demographic majority, we still today continue to be expected to pander to whiteness and to have it enforced through school policy."

The protest has also been widely discussed on social media under the hashtag #StopRacismAtPretoriaGirlsHigh. Many Twitter users expressed support for the protest, and lamented that the girls had to bear the burden of fighting racial discrimination as young South Africans did in the decades before. 

The students also allege that school officials tell them to disperse when they gather in groups, and that they're banned from speaking in African languages.

The protest has gained national momentum. A member of the executive council of education, Panyaza Lesufi, will launch an investigation into the matter, a local news website reported.

And Arts and Culture Minister Nathi Mthethwa threw his support behind the movement on Monday. "Schools should not be used as a platform to discourage students from embracing their African Identity," he tweeted.