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Students forced to straighten their hair; at what cost?

By Danielle van Wyk

The last two weeks have had the country divided around the claims from black students from various schools that they were being discriminated against with regards to how they were being allowed to wear their hair. Some were encouraged to straighten and process their ‘unruly’ natural hair. But at what cost?

Student uprising

Students from Pretoria High Girls School sparked quite the debate as they spoke out against being forced to straighten and ‘tame’ their natural hair in an attempt to appear neater and conform to the school’s code of conduct. Students viewed this as a form of racism and rallied national support, as many felt that these girls were being subjected to institutionalised racism. The students further claimed that they were being ostracised by teachers and fellow learners alike for speaking their mother tongue, even within their social circles on school premises.

This had a domino effect as soon learners from other schools nationwide spoke out against the same policies. San Souci Girls’ high being one of them. Here, students were complaining of being subjected to a demerit system of carrying around notebooks and having a demerit listed in it each time they were found speaking their mother tongue. Girls were also reprimanded for wearing braids.

A social media frenzy was born as the hashtag #StopRacismAtPretoriaGirlsHigh trended, with both celebs and ordinary twitter users speaking out institutionalised racism. It became clear that this debate ran deeper than whether or not girls where being permitted to braid their hair or not.

Not only are we as a society being forced to relook at the way our schools are governed, but this further delved into the issue of identity for many black women. Girls at these various schools were being told by authoritative figures that the wearing of their natural hair was ‘untidy’ and ‘sloppy’.

African hair industry

While it is difficult to find reliable Africa-wide statistics, a report from market research firm, Euromonitor on the cost of the African hair industry was produced earlier this year. It showed how much was spent on various hair products.  

“$1.1 billion (R 1601,8695,000) of shampoos, relaxers and hair lotions were sold in South Africa, Nigeria and Cameroon alone last year. It sees the liquid hair care market growing by about five percent from 2013 to 2018 in Nigeria and Cameroon, with a slight decline for the more mature South African market. Some estimates put Africa's dry hair industry at as much as $6 billion (R87,374,700,000) a year,” reported News24 in reference to the Euromonitor report.

This further affirms the notion that women carry with them the need to relax and straighten their hair well into their later years.

In South Africa the hair salon business is a big contributor to the informal trade sector, with women flocking to buy everything from imported wigs and weaves to having their hair relaxed. Imported hair can range from R1,800 – R6,000 depending on the length and the quality of the hair. The more desired hair is usually imported from the likes of Peru and India and can be bought from the more upmarket salons like Jabula Hair in Cape Town.

Cost of hair maintenance

For those who prefer wearing their natural hair, which pertains to scholars as they are not allowed the wearing of weaves and wigs at school, relaxing their hair is an option. Here, straightening chemicals are put onto the individual’s hair to remove the natural kink, leaving their hair straighter and apparently more manageable. In the case of the Pretoria Girls’ students, they were reportedly being made to straighten their hair in attempt to look more presentable. The cost of relaxing depends on the salon one goes to. The more upmarket salons, like Jabula, charge anywhere between R100 – R150 per treatment.  Whereas the informal salons charge around R30 for a relaxer treatment.

Hair relaxers grow out and can take anywhere from three weeks to just over a month to do so. This sees some individuals having to make a second trip to the salon in one month. Here is where it could present an affordability challenge.

With the before mentioned figures in mind, individuals could be seen forking out between R60 – R300 monthly on treatments and the process doesn’t stop there. Post relaxer treatments, women also have to apply a variety of products to maintain the treatment.

For many parents the upkeep of their daughters’ hair becomes an expensive endeavour all in the name of conforming.

Education Department’s response

The students’ protests put pressure on the Education department to respond with a plan of action.

In Gauteng, Pretoria Girls’ learners executed a protest against discriminatory school policies, which saw the province’s MEC for Education visiting the school and suspending the hair clause. Minister Panyaza Lesufi instituted an investigation with a 21 day time frame into these policies within the province.

Other schools such as Parktown High, The St Michael's School for Girls in Bloemfontein and Lawson Brown High School in Port Elizabeth are all also in the process of amending their hair policies.

Last week saw the Western Cape Education department getting involved as a meeting between disgruntled parents and learners and members and the Western Cape Education MEC Debbie Schafer was held. Following this meeting the MEC is said to be in the process of investigating these claims and feedback is expected shortly.

Cabinet commended the bravery of students that have spoken out against these policies.

While the debate still rages on, one thing is certain, this has provided a necessary platform for discussions around oppressive behavioural patterns especially within institutions like schools.

It forces us as a society to think about the messages we are sending to our young women about what is beautiful and acceptable, and that is never a bad thing.  Hopefully, with the cost of hair care increasing yearly the debate on whether it’s affordable will be addressed too.

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