A Reflection on Pretoria Girls High: Why South Africans Need to Empathise

racism pretoria high

A Reflection on Pretoria Girls High: Why South Africans Need to Empathise

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No doubt you’ve read one or two articles concerning the demonstrations at the Pretoria Girls High School or you’ve at least discussed this topic around the water cooler sometime during recent months. The point is, we’ve all talked about it, shared some Tweets, commented on a Facebook post here and there, but what now? What happens after the incident and what’s keeping the conversation going? Moreover, why WE must keep the conversation going.

A quick flashback for context: During August pupils from the prestigious Pretoria High School for Girls led a protest over the alleged racist hair policies some pupils have been subjected to. Pupils raised concerns that staff members were instructing black students to “fix” their hair.

racism girls pretoria

Image by Phil Magakoe, IOL Media

I’ve recently read an article on the definition of privilege which I resonated with on various levels. Particularly, “that most people in our culture consider activism to be optional – something they can take part in or not, like bowling or biking, rather than something essential or necessary.” This article, together with a Chris Chameleon tweet stuck with me and ultimately became the very reason I chose to write this article.

Chris Chameleon Verified Twitter account ‏@chrischameleon Aug 30:

“not to hate on pretoria girls high but this afro thingy has gone a bit far now”

South African media headlines have recently been dominated by many thought-provoking subjects. There is only really one example I need to mention and you will catch my drift here with #Feesmustfall… These fallists movements, as they have been dubbed, have had some significance worth taking note of.

Rachel Brooks perfectly highlights why the recent student activity is particularly significant: “Such activity raises important questions about the assumptions that have been made by some social commentators and politicians about the political apathy of the young and the de-politicisation of universities.”

Remarkably, 2016 has definitely been a year to redefine what it means to be comfortable and with comfortable I can’t help but to concede privileged. This year our headlines have been dominated by topics that have sparked controversy. As Tim Hjersted explains it, privilege is “thinking something’s not a problem because it’s not a problem to you”. Often we are discouraged from taking part in certain conversations because we feel that adding to a particular discourse won’t do anything to OUR daily lives. To be brutally honest and in the spirit of self-reflection, there have been some situations where I didn’t want to voice my opinion simply because I felt that it would be wrong of me to do so. What do I know? But one thing the recent student movements have taught me, is that not saying something is actually worse – after all, silence is consensus.

When I started with this article, I wanted to write something about a movement that resonated with me and how I felt united in the cause, I wanted to support these girls’ fight for their cause. Hjersted’s idea that, “There is unity in recognising that your problems and my problems are one and the same” however encouraged me to change my reasoning for this article. The fact that systemic oppression affects different people differently means we don’t face the same problems and in fact during my school years I have never felt that my cultural diversity was threatened. So how would I be able to relate to these girls? In the bigger scheme of things the social system we live in favours certain cultures and disfranchises others. So instead of me writing an article about supporting a cause, I’m now writing to emphasise the importance of recognising and acknowledging that our social system has wronged these girls.

Philip Lewis Verified Twitter account ‏@Phil_Lewis_ Aug 29:

They were told by their school that their hair is “untidy.” They are now protesting. #StopRacismAtPretoriaGirlsHigh

racism south africa

Image: Phil Magakoe, IOL Media

The campaign led by the Pretoria Girls High pupils raised concerns about what constitutes neatness/tidiness and how they are perceived. Girls of colour were being disciplined because their hairstyles were perceived as not meeting the so called school standard, the social norm. Why has this form of institutionalised racism been allowed to take place and most importantly why haven’t these institutions been forced to take transformation more seriously? I quote Salim Vally, director of the Centre for Education Rights and Transformation at the University of Johannesburg, “schools shouldn’t pay lip service to transformation.”

As important as it is to realise we have differences, it is equally if not more important to realise that we cannot force others to conform to what we believe is the norm. This is what transformation has taught us, to not be uncomfortable with our differences. If someone is raising their voice on a subject that doesn’t resonate with you, don’t refuse them that opportunity, just because it makes you uncomfortable. Rather ask yourself why this issue, that’s so important to someone else, is making you feel this uncomfortable.

I leave you with this thought; rather than dwelling in your discomfort, let these #movements be an opportunity for you to understand and better empathise. Try to recognise that society treats people differently and that we all have a responsibility to consciously acknowledge this treatment. “To begin with systemic oppression is not about individual “guilt.” It is about collective responsibility and an acceptance that, as these systemic injustices are ingrained in our society profoundly deeply, we all participate in them whether we wish to or not and that we often do so entirely unconsciously” Michael Laxer.

For interest sake, go have a look at how the Pretoria Girls High topic was analysed by Superlinear (social and big data analyst) here.

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