Written by: Anthony Stuurman
One evening in February 1990, Tom Ruiters, a homeless black man in his 70s, sought refuge from the cold night. He never made it to the morning. His mistake was to seek shelter on the grounds of a prestigious whites-only school in the heart of the Eastern Cape. His assailants, a gang of four white teenage boys, killed him by beating his frail body over and over again with a cricket bat, hockey stick and baseball bat. With weapons at hand, not only were the boys fully prepared for violence that evening, they even had a name for their sick gang: ‘The Joubert Kaffir Bashing Society’. Tom Ruiters wasn’t their first victim, but he was their last. Ten months later this whites-only school opened its doors to the first cohort of black students. Nobody remembers Tom Ruiters.
In recent days social media has been abuzz. Students at Pretoria High School for Girls have been protesting what they see as an infringement of their rights: that is, the right to wear one’s hair as they please. Naturally, cries of whiteness oppressing black bodies and so forth were liberally bounced around.
One Grade 12 student from the school even went so far as to use the racist term ‘Beckys’ to describe white female staff in an online article. (To readers oblivious to this derogatory term, it means a female Neanderthal; it is used in a similar way a white racist might call a black person a monkey. Sometimes it is used in full, e.g. Cave Becky.)
There is perhaps one very crucial question that needs answering. Is it fundamentally racist of PHSG to impose a ban on certain hair styles, such as dreadlocks, etc.?
On the 7th of October 2014, a case was brought before the Kenyan High Court. A six year old pupil had brought a lawsuit against his school because they banned his preferred hair style: dreadlocks. The outcome of the case was that the school was within its rights to impose a ban on certain hair styles, dreadlocks included. Further, the court argued that it was an issue of fashion, not culture or religion.
An excerpt from the schools handbook suggests that the girls from PHSG would also have fallen foul of the rules in Kenya:
“Hairstyles for girls should be simple and of natural colour. Hair and braids must be tied back so as to look neat and tidy.”
Kenya is hardly a bastion of whiteness, now is it? Yet these are pretty much the same rules at PHSG.
Still not convinced? Take the case of South African student Dylan Reynders. Last year he decided to go against school hairstyle rules by growing out his hair. He was suspended. The provincial education department attended his suspension hearings. They upheld the right of the school to suspend Dylan over his choice of haircut. Dylan Reynders is white.
When brought into a wider context, it is plainly difficult to argue that the hair code for PHSG is racist and an oppressive function of ‘whiteness’. Rather, this is a bit of age-old teen rebellion over fashion choices. Hardly something to get excited about.
So what is the deal? Why have teen fashion choices been hyper-racialised?
A large part of this is a direct result of the gentrification of student politics. So called ‘Fashionable Fallists’ have steadily imposed their middle class issues on their working class peers. Along the way they have expropriated struggle language as a means of dominating the over-all student narrative. They hide behind struggle language as a means to gain authenticity. However, as a consequence, ‘Fashionable Fallists’ are in real danger of developing what Frantz Fanon referred to as ‘wilful narcissism’.
‘Fashionable Fallists’ are happy to coach and mentor the girls of PHSG as a means of ‘disrupting whiteness’. Yet, when it comes to real issues that affect working class students, they are remarkably low key – no all-out media campaigns for them! Non-delivery of textbooks, absentee teachers, burnt schools, poor pass rates, endemic sexual violence – none of these issues genuinely matter to ‘Fashionable Fallists’.
Like Tom Ruiters, working class students, who carry the true burden of inequality, are slowly being forgotten about, usurped by narcissistic middle class fashion concerns.
Author: Anthony Stuurman (a pen-name) is an educator in the Eastern Cape with an interest in neuroscience, ethnobotany and a passion for free speech.