Defend Truth


Black hair, sharp scissors and the totality of white power

Ayabonga Cawe is an economist by training, and aside from a short stint as a researcher at a government agency, he has never been a disciple of market doctrine. He speaks and writes on history, political economy and public policy. A pan Africanist, he earns his keep in the development sector as a project manager, but is often found in watering holes of the city, camera in hand holding court with other restless youth of different persuasions.

When the impulse of assimilation, or ‘persuasion’ fails, authorities are often unafraid to use sanctions that threaten the safety and future of the young learners in their care. In environments where obedience is valued above critical appreciation of the role of regulations, it is not surprising that violence lies in reserve, for any errant learner.

Andries Babeile stabbed a white pupil with a pair of scissors in the year 2000. Two years earlier, when a group of parents and pupils of Hoërskool Vryburg protested against alleged racism, the school governing body mobilised white parents to prevent the march. What followed was a violent spectacle similar to what we saw during a rugby match at the University of Free State last year. It was a typical case of the totality of white power flexing its muscles in a constitutional dispensation it neither respects nor appreciates, but reluctantly ‘tolerates’. Make us numb, Tata Nelson. Andries Babeile ended up serving a jail term. I was reminded of Babeile when I witnessed the defiance of young African women at Pretoria High School for Girls on Saturday. It was the kind of disruptive defiance that knew that arrest was nothing worse to what they had experienced at the hands of those their parents, had delegated to care for them.

Arrest us all”, the young women said, contemplating arrest before even fully grasping the uncertainty of puberty. I thought “detention” was a rite of passage for our parents’ generation in the 1980s. I have always been shocked by the anxiety of the old guard at some of South Africa’s former model C schools*. The kind of anxiety that makes middle aged men call for “reinforcements” when confronted by articulate young teenagers who just want to grow their hair. Black women have always known that their hair is a site of struggle. If it’s not Bra Hugh or Bra Don unhelpfully berating weaves, it’s confused tannies telling our sisters that their hair is wild. The aesthetic, hair and skin more notably, have also been sites for the accumulation of wealth as well. Ask the new Joburg mayor, Herman and the late Abe Krok, who made a fortune from selling skin-lightening creams during Apartheid.

To reduce the matter to a surface-level concern about hair and associated regulations, as many verkrampte elements have, is to miss the point. The issue at hand from my limited experience (after 12 years at a boys’ school with similarly conservative and racist regulations during my time at the establishment), has much to do with white sensibilities, fears and anxieties as it does with questions of ownership of what are in essence are “public institutions”. Which public and what do I mean by ownership?

The young women who bravely stood down structural power at Pretoria High School for Girls and at Lawson Brown in Port Elizabeth and other model C schools will no doubt have come across (in text or paraphrased form) the affirmatory writings of Biko and the ideas of the Black Consciousness movement more broadly. This matters because it assists us in understanding what I mean by ownership above, and the logics of inclusion and exclusion, which define which ‘public’ owns these schools. Biko, when he spoke of ‘integration’, understood how powerful and dangerous the normative and widely held belief that white value systems were the true marker of progress. We may live in a democratic society, but the ‘ownership’ of these institutions, and their associated values, determines the logic of inclusion, and the basis of that inclusion, if at all. Put differently, even in a democratic society, the ‘public’ of Atteridgeville is limited and circumscribed in how much of Girls High they can claim. Behind the rationale of rate-paying parents, affordability, zoning, feeder schools and other hurdles, the child from Atteridgeville will need to be blessed with overwhelming talent or be born to deep pockets to be assured of the same access. When the ‘feeder school’ arguments are not strong enough to keep black kids out, the anxieties about dress and language kick in. These anxieties are called ‘tradition’, ‘culture’ or typically ‘how we’ve always done things’. It is a powerful device, used often to detach black children from the communities they come from. It is a device that gives rise to the often-used retort during my own school days:

If you want to behave in that way, you can go to Ezibeleni or ‘Nkwankwa’ (Nkwanca).

The use of this device achieves multiple aims, through the cunning use of a combination of ‘persuasion, coercion and force’. Firstly, the use of ‘persuasive’ but often structurally violent suggestive language targeted at encouraging the illusion of privilege. Black pupils were reminded at every turn that they were fortunate to have been saved by Model C education from the ravages of township life and schooling. Grateful at this insistence, they were reminded daily of the knuckle grinding sacrifices and knee-high debt of their parents. White values and exploitative rules were then generally accepted with minimal resistance.

Secondly, the persuasive approach above is also accompanied by urges to ‘transform by assimilation’. To explain the point further, I am reminded of a story of a man now in his late 30s, who attended a Model C primary school from 1992 in the Eastern Cape. Coming from Mthatha in the old Transkei, the young man had been exposed to multiracial schooling and a different milieu to that of the ‘Border’ town he now had to navigate. At the first assembly, as Die Stem was sung, the Transkei boys decided not to sing (they were used to singing Nkosi Sikelela iAfrika at school in Mthatha). Discovering this, the deputy Headmaster quickly reminded them: “We know that you are likely to be in power soon, but not yet, and until then you will sing what we sing here.”

This anecdote is instructive because it draws us to the experience of many current and former pupils who have had to leave meaningful parts of themselves at home to ‘integrate’. This came in many forms. Some of the schools had rules that denied us the right to practice our traditional rites, which were seen as ‘unnecessary voodoo’. So much so that even in a place like the Eastern Cape, a school has the audacity to dictate to parents when they should take their sons to traditional initiation.

Returning to the question of hair, it becomes clear that codes of conduct and regulations in these schools have as their normative basis the white aesthetic. One has to keep one’s hair within these normative limits; ‘level three’ and above the ears for boys, and ‘tamed’ and undisruptive for girls. That these rules are made, with no rationale offered, is as much an indictment on the school authorities as it is of black parents, many of whom make unspeakable sacrifices in the name of progress.

Thirdly, there is the force of sanctions and violence that accompanies any resistance to the normative limits placed on African children in these schools: “You won’t write exams”; “You won’t receive a testimonial”; or worse yet, when all else fails, the common refrain is to summon state power or the lethal force of arms: “We’ll call the cops.”

When the impulse of assimilation, or ‘persuasion’ fails, authorities are often unafraid to use sanctions that threaten the safety and future of the young learners in their care. In environments where obedience is valued above critical appreciation of the role of regulations, it is not surprising that violence lies in reserve, for any errant learner.

Appreciation of this reality requires us to interrogate what Biko called the totality of white power. Biko interrogates the link between this totality and the role of fear in South Africa, which although written in the 1970s, remains relevant:

It is this fear that erodes the soul of black people in South Africa, a fear obviously built up deliberately by the system through a myriad of civil agents, be they post office attendants, police, CID officials, army men in uniform, security police or even the occasional trigger-happy white farmer or store owner. It is a fear so basic in the considered actions of black people as to make it impossible for them to behave like people – let alone free people. From the attitude of a servant to his employer, to that of a black man being served by a white attendant at a shop one sees this fear clearly showing through. How can people be prepared to put up a resistance against their overall oppression if in their individual situations, they cannot insist on the observance of their (wo)manhood?

From the eNCA doek saga, to the heroics of Zulaikha Patel, we are reminded that the power of whiteness doesn’t require a cushy ceremonial seat in the Union Buildings, but breeds itself through persuasion, coercion and fear, mediated by institutional power. It is not only the African child subjected to the ‘swimming cap’ test that is scared or fearful, but their parents too. Black middle class life is precarious, so that in many ways the model C-stye education presents an intergenerational exit. Many after all, presented with any serious shock to their livelihood, are often two pay cheques away from the breadlines.

The totality of white power, for its reproduction, requires a range of institutions and underlying value systems. Schools are but one part of this. Appreciating this is important. The pencil test may no longer be in the statute books, but is now a ‘swimming cap’ test written into codes of conduct in schools that often act with racist impunity. It took the acts of a few brave young black women to remind us of what many of us have always known. It is not our public that owns and determines the direction of these schools, irrespective of how much we pay in fees. It is this sobering realisation that must inform our response, or we’ll jump, as we always do, from one alarming episode to another. Leaving traumatic experiences and anger scattered along our landscape, and with feigned shock we will cast our eyes away when sharpened scissors are the chosen tools of resistance. DM

* Term used for ease of reference; many of the same structures remain post-Apartheid.


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