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Girls At South African High School Protesting Hair And Language Bans


There's a protest movement happening in South Africa. It's about racial discrimination. It's about women's rights. It's about that country's history of apartheid. And at its most basic, it's about hair. It started when a group of students at the Pretoria High School for Girls got into a standoff with security guards. The girls were protesting that school's policy that requires they tame their natural hair. Braids and straightened hair are OK - afros are not. Under pressure from students and parents, the school has decided to review its policy.

But the whole thing has started a national debate in South Africa about the subtle and not-so-subtle ways blacks are forced to conform to white culture. Joining me now to talk more about this is a recent graduate of the Pretoria School for Girls. Her name is Tiisetso Phetla. Thank you so much for being with us.

TIISETSO PHETLA: It's a pleasure.

MARTIN: You graduated a couple of years ago from the Pretoria School for Girls. Can you tell me what the policies were like when you were a student there? What were the rules governing how you wore your hair?

PHETLA: The rules were that you weren't allowed an afro. As long as your hair was close to the African natural texture as possible, it basically was not allowed.

MARTIN: What was the punishment if you did come to school one day with your hair natural?

PHETLA: You weren't welcomed into any assembly. You'd most probably be kicked out of class. So it basically took away your learning time, it took away your right to education and the image of beauty that you possess of yourself because that's what they were telling you, that you're not good enough to be here with your natural hair.

MARTIN: Can you talk about what it felt like as a student there to have this kind of stipulation made about your own hairstyle?

PHETLA: It was very difficult because they tell you that either you look barbaric or your hair looks like a dog's breakfast or remove that nest off your head. So your mood would completely change for the entire day. You'd be de-motivated for the day because they tell you that you don't look as if you belong in the school. And can I just say the level and quality of education at Pretoria High School for Girls is impeccable, but the problem is the discrimination that the kids are receiving.

MARTIN: What's your understanding about why the policies existed? I mean, how were they justified?

PHETLA: In a way, I feel that it's conscious and subconscious racism because they didn't dismantle their old code of conduct that did not accommodate the black child at all because the black child was never supposed to receive an education.

MARTIN: I should interrupt you - we should also point out that this school was only relatively recently integrated.

PHETLA: Yes. So you'd always be on the short end of the stick as a black child in the school or a mixed-race child because you were never included in the blueprint of the school when it started.

MARTIN: When you see these girls at your alma mater now who are leading these protests and starting these conversations which have now spread throughout the country as other schools with similar policies are being forced to re-evaluate them, how does it make you feel?

PHETLA: I look at it with pain because it's 2016. Why are we still having to fight such battles? Why were they not fought a long time ago? It saddens me. But I am so proud and honored to stand in solidarity with these kids because of their loud voices, because of their courage, because of their leadership skills and because of their consciousness.

MARTIN: Now that you've graduated from the school, you don't have to abide by those rules. Do you wear your hair naturally?

PHETLA: All the time. And I wear it with so much pride because my afro is my crown. I am an African queen. Why am I fighting to be African in Africa? Why must I apologize for being African in Africa? If you can't be black in Africa, where are we expected to be black? Where can we be black?

MARTIN: Tiisetso Phetla. She joined us from Pretoria, South Africa via Skype. Tiisetso, thank you so much for talking with us.

PHETLA: It's a pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.