This is probably the only country in the world where the natural state of a 13-year-old girls’s hair is going to command national attention. She didn’t dye her hair purple or do a Mohawk, she simply wore her hair as nature intended. And she made national headlines. You’re probably a bit hair-weary by now. So am I, but I bring this up because it speaks to the heart of South Africa’s state of race relations right now. Pretoria Girls High School’s hair policy sums up all that is wrong with South African society.
Back in the pre-democracy days, the SA Communist Party had a discussion document, Colonisation of a Special Type. Its central message was that while the rest of Africa and the world had an external superpower come in and take over the country and seek to set up a mini Britain or Germany in the colony, in South Africa the colonisation was more subtle. The coloniser (white people) was an internal one (albeit of Dutch origin), and when decolonisation was going to happen, the coloniser and the colonised would still remain in the same country. In the rest of the world decolonisation meant the coloniser was sent packing, sometimes with only what they could carry on their backs.
What does a Pretoria Girls High School pupil’s hair have to do with colonialism and racism, you ask? Well, everything. These 13-year-old girls are paying the price for a decolonisation project that failed to proceed to completion. That such young girls are made to feel unworthy about the natural state of their hair is an indictment on us as a nation. Those girls should be on the playground giggling at each other’s clumsiness, not carrying out battles far beyond their mental maturity. But the colonialism of a special type was never matched with a decolonisation of a special type. What we have is a piecemeal solution to all the instances of racism that keep on popping up at more than regular intervals in our public spaces. If it’s not Steve Hofymeyr denying apartheid then it’s a Penny Sparrow feeling justified in insulting 80% of the population of the country.
Decolonisation in its purest form means the breaking down of the order of things as set up by the external power, and consciously setting up the order of things for the new nation. The new nation cannot come up through wishy-washy schemes of integrating races in residences of an Afrikaans university but can only be brought about by dismantling, brick by brick, the legacy of a system that sought to decimate all other parts of the whole that form our nation. The process in most countries was a violent one, and almost all colonised countries had to go to war with the coloniser to bring forth the birth of the new nation. We were fortunate to have what is now thought of as a peaceful transition.
The peacefulness of the transition has led to the coloniser assuming that the colonised were happy to be assimilated into their society – happy to fit in and abide by the rules designed with the hair of white people in mind. But that cannot be. The rule book should have been torn up and written from scratch. In fact, the rule book should have been burned. And the most unpalatable part for the coloniser would be that the writers of the new rule books would have been the formerly colonised, because they were the excluded, and they form the majority. But that never happened, and our kids are paying the price.
I’m not going to join the “blame Mandela for everything” brigade because he never closed the door on decolonisation. If he did, we let him. We have to take collective responsibility for allowing racists the space to operate within our society. The coloniser has to come to a realisation that terms such as “unintended racism” are a cop-out. Racism is racism, and can’t be sugar-coated.
It is not uncommon to hear things like “I’ve been head of this school for 10 years and I’ve never heard of a single complaint of racism”. That statement is in itself flawed. Why must one section “complain” for rule books to change? The struggle itself was the complaint. Complaints don’t come bigger than that. Those black parents who have children in formerly white schools know what it’s like to be treated as though they’re invisible. There is no overt racism, but things are run in an “old boys’ society” kind of way. These things are not in policy handbooks and can’t be legislated, but exclude others on “experience”.
Ask any new graduate entering the blue-chip company job market. The unwritten rules are that the one who adapts the quickest to “corporate culture”, which includes adjusting one’s accent to fit in, is the one who climbs the ladder quickest. I guess people who come up with beauties such as “unintended racism” refer to such instances.
One can’t help but apportion some of the blame on the ruling party. If, in 22 years of democracy, a 13-year-old girl has to raise a Black Power fist to assert her right to wear her natural hair to school, something is deeply flawed in the state of that democracy. And if not attended to, the growing anger will reach a tipping point, and there will be consequences.
People always dismiss the demand for land by the Economic Freedom Fighters as entitlement. This ignores that the demand is underpinned by people’s cry to become fully actualised citizens in their own country. The demand is for transformation to be real, for inequality to be truthfully and honestly addressed, without feeling the need to “ask for permission” to complain. Decolonisation cannot be asked for, the coloniser cannot possibly determine the speed and direction of a project meant to get rid of the rot brought about by a system that made them superior.