OPINION: Why our hair matters

The protest at the Pretoria High Schools for Girls at their fun fair over the weekend has put hair politics, identity and debates around racism back on the national discourse. And yet again we, black people, find ourselves having to explain and justify our anger. And it is not "alleged" racism as some print media publications put it.

That it happened at a school is pivotal and significant. A school, as an ideological state apparatus, is at the centre of not only manufacturing consent, but is most-often a site where ideologies, relations of power and dominance are reinforced and reaffirmed. For schools teach how and are spaces of indoctrination. It is a space where difference is produced, as children soon realise that the colour of their skin is different and the meaning invested in that difference. It is also at school that children begin to question their identity, their sense of being and whose lives matter.

And so the codes of conduct teach learners about acceptable behaviour, how to conduct one's self, rights and responsibilities. The codes (or rules) will prescribe how uniform should be worn and that hair be kept neat at all times. But school codes of conduct can be value-laden and politically charged. You see this in language policies where African languages cannot be spoken on school premise under the guise of promoting competence in English and Afrikaans. Schools, we are told, are English-medium schools, but this only serves to manufacture the hegemony and dominance of one particular racial group. Thus, schools become the sites where white supremacy is reproduced. Whether unintended or intended is debatable.

And you may ask, what has hair got to do with it? The schools' hair regulation for black people is an attack on our hair. Hair has always been a constant battle and continues to be a battle for the black populace. It is an Achilles' heel for many of us. This attack on our hair is an attack on our heritage, our cultures, our pride, our identity and our position in society. A battle we are yet to win. It is about violence, exploitation, marginalisation, stigmatisation, one's sense of inferiority and power relations. It is about politics of difference. It is not a philosophical debate as some would argue. It is about our ways of being that demands of us to remain true to ourselves (Taylor, 1994). It is about subjectivity, our personal experiences of oppression versus emancipation. And importantly hair determines access to economic opportunities, progress; it determines whether you get your next meal.

For the majority of former Model C schools the idea of "neat" is one whose hair is either Caucasian/European, or straightened black hair. The framework in which rules and regulations, codes of conduct are designed mirrors white supremacy. We need to challenge these regulations which seek to render us invisible. We need to challenge the wording of rules that forbid exotic hair such as dreadlocks and spikes. Why are dreadlocks exotic? Even the rule that forbids young boys from shaving their heads, is a continuation of the colonial project to emasculate the black man. For the black man, a shaved head symbolizes masculinity, authority and dominance. I never understood the rational of this rule. The black African has to shave their head after a funeral or after initiation, their custom and traditions are undermined by the hair rules and regulations. Do you not see the injustice?

To examine these tensions it becomes imperative that the topic be placed within the historical context of black lives. Black people's hair has been historically devalued. For many years the black populace, as the marginalised group, has had to battle for acceptance, integrate with the dominant white population and their norms by ways of assimilation. It's very convenient for many to say forget about the past. But the past continues into the present.

During slavery hair became a matter of labour. It served to divide and create envy among black people during slavery when those whose skin was dark with kinky hair worked as field slaves and the house slaves had to wear wigs which resembled their slave masters. The house slaves were granted privilege, prestige and superior status. It is no wonder that black people would hate how they looked. Black people were subject to ridicule because of the colour their skin and texture of the hair. The pencil test in apartheid South Africa would be the greatest tool of segregation, so powerful that it separated families of the same bloodline. What separated siblings was how long the pencil stuck in one's hair after shaking their head. The texture of the hair determined whether you were black or non-black and whether you were worthy of citizenship.

And so our mothers and fathers did all in their will and might to straighten out their hairs so they could be desirable. Our fathers created the "long walk to freedom" line just so they had the exact same line Baas John had. Because our mothers and fathers were fighting for approval and desirability. This created a huge demand for an industry that sold products to alter the hair of black people and created an advertising industry that promoted the alteration of hair. Fast track to today, black people and hair politics is about access to economic opportunities. Hair determines access to economic opportunities and, by extension, access to an education. Black people must continue to fight for desirability and acceptance. The school regulation of hair, which indirectly compels us to straighten our hair, is a reminder of this painful history.

One cannot blame young black South Africans for feeling that the black population was sold out in a settlement that became our non-racial political order, for the new social order and its economic structure continues to benefit the white minority, while white privilege remains secured. The political project was all about political power, economic redistribution, one that overlooked identity politics and the role it would play in shaping the current socio-economic and political trajectory of our time.

We are not asking for special treatment. This is not to exempt the black people from hair regulations. It is about our identity. Our hair does not grow silky soft downward and we refuse to alter it. We beg, no, we demand, that this be not trivialised. We are tired of being treated as second-class citizens 22 years into our democracy based on the texture of our hair. Caucasian or silky European hair symbolises worth, esteem, wealth, health, beauty and prestige, whereas black people's hair is seen as uncontrollable, untidy, bird's nest, etc.

And what is disheartening is the majority of white people who don't get what the huge fuss is about, who dismiss the protests as militancy and defiance. It's not about whether one school accepts braids and dreadlocks or not. It's about the broader conversation around black people, their identity and meanings associated with our hair and identity. It's having to explain that your dreadlocks are hair. It's explaining that our hair is coiled and grows upwards. It's about the negative connotations associated with black hair. The natural state of our hair has never been associated with anything positive. Hair determines desirability, acceptance and access to economic opportunities which extend to the right to education. As the subject of discourse and never the object, the whites of this country will never get it until they have walked in our shoes, until they become the object of discourse.

We must also challenge the use of the word "natural" in defining the natural state of our hair. Why do we refer to "unprocessed", "kinky" hair, our Afros as natural hair, and Caucasian hair as just hair? Why is our hair eccentric or exotic, why is our hair the "other"? We are not mysterious beings from far, far away places. What makes our Afros "Natural hair" and white hair normal? By attaching the word "natural" to black people's hair we are also perpetuating the peculiarity of our hair, further otherizing our hair.

It is problematic that natural hair is associated with political militancy; dreadlocks with political statements, rather than identity of the black child. Dreadlocks and natural hair are not political statements, neither are they fashion statements or political hairstyles, they are who we are, what sets us apart from other racial identities, our heritage and pride, our uncelebrated beauty. Not a black power thing. Our hair is not a piece of artwork. Artwork gets curated and lives in art exhibitions. Our hair is part of our being.

The bomb is ticking. Young people and the majority of black people are getting agitated. You need to look no further than the #BlackLivesMatter and #StopRacism movements; the black populace is growing impatient with the status quo and the fight will no longer be on social media; the fight will no longer be reduced to hashtags. The anger is bubbling and simmering. For we have unfinished business with the reconciliatory efforts of this country. There can be no social cohesion if the black child still cannot access university, if the black child goes to bed hungry. This is not a normal state of affairs. Poverty, inequality in accessing economic opportunities and prosperity are realities, but these phenomena are coalesced along racial lines. This is not normal. Ask yourselves why it's just that one racial group.

Hair is about individual acceptance. Learners should not be made to feel that their natural hair is worthless and undesirable. It is about embracing that which makes us different not to justify fear and how you act based on that fear. It demands the respect of oneself as a different being. The black child refuses to be silenced and undermined. The battle is about reclaiming our spaces and our voices. It is about reclaiming our rightful positions, power, redescription, transformation. The rainbow nation remains a myth so long as white supremacy is reinforced. The liberation struggle is incomplete so long as the identity of black people remains trapped and oppressed. The hair regulations that prescribe that hair is acceptable only when the structure of hair, its cuticles, is altered is the problem because our identity as a people is altered. That's what matters. Our hair matters.

Andiswa Makanda is a content producer for the John Robbie Show on 702 for which she won a 2015 MTN Radio Awards. She is currently doing her MA in Media Studies at Wits University.