More than five decades ago, a baby-faced 12-year-old was made to stand at an upper balcony, facing hundreds of fellow pupils assembled in the high school quad below.
Grabbing the boy’s forelock, a stern prefect announced that henceforth, the offender would wear a ribbon in his hair. A ribbon was produced. Noisy jeers ensued. This was, after all, a boys-only school in the early ’60s. Boys would become men, and men would be macho.
I was that boy. My crime? I had used peroxide to become blond. Shock, horror. The prefect wanted to prevent an outbreak of bleachboys.
Nowadays, that same school caters for boys and girls of all races. On its website there are photos of girls wearing braids and extensions. Didn’t notice any Afros but the hair policy is more relaxed than in the past.
Probably more easygoing than Pretoria High School for Girls and other institutions befuddled by black girls’ hair.
Why do some people obsess about others’ hair? There’s a link between hair and control. We saw this in the Sixties, when long, wild hair symbolised the hippie rebellion against an uptight establishment. In South Africa, most white men and boys wore short-back-and-sides haircuts.
Times have changed but the preoccupation with other people’s hair endures.
Six years ago Nikiwe Bikitsha wrote a memorable column about how she had decided to hang up her wig. Shortly after ditching the appendage, she had reason to be amused when fellow joggers were caught in a downpour at a Joburg foot race.
“It was the shrieks of horror from the black women that had me chuckling. The hair! How would the variety of weaves, wigs and chemically straightened styles survive the downpour?”
She told of how she “saw my poor sisters scampering for cover, desperately trying to shield their mighty expensive locks from the destructive effects of the rain”.
While Bikitsha felt liberated by her decision to keep her hair natural, the demand for wigs and weaves is unabated. And why not?
As she put it, “We have rights and choices and we should be allowed to look whichever way we want”. Exactly.
And why should these rights not extend to schoolgoers? Why do some people feel they have to impose their expectations of appearance so forcibly on others?
Inevitably the latest spat over hair is tinged with racism. And people like me are advised not to comment. But that can’t be right. To exclude people on the basis of colour, gender, or age is itself discriminatory.
Hair wars provide a distraction from so many issues which seem more important. Yet it is time once again to examine who decides what hair is acceptable, and why.
Authorities will want to draw the line somewhere but prejudice cannot be the guide.
Why is long hair okay on a girl if it is more or less straight but not if it is tightly curled? Who decided that? When and why? Why should it be such a big issue if a person wants to bleach their hair, frizz it, wear dreadlocks or whatever?
What difference does it make to you?