From racial difference to common citizenship: A hair-raising issue

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Jerome Joorst (picture: YouTube)

The South African Constitution provides an overarching framework for social cohesion in a post-apartheid society. It protects, for example, individuals’ fundamental rights to equality (section 9) and human dignity (section 10) (RSA, 1996). National policies such as the South African Schools Act (84 of 1996) specifically address the issue of desegregation which offers the opportunity for learners of different race groups to attend schools of their choice. The hope was that learners would be integrated in school and therefore in society. However, the code of conduct for learners in South African schools has recently come under the spotlight with the eruptions of the “hair incident” at San Souci and Pretoria Girls’ High. While the unfolding debate seems to centre on issues of hair and language, indications are that it is about much more than that.

The law instructs schools to draw up codes of conduct for learners which are "aimed at establishing a disciplined and purposeful school environment, dedicated to the improvement and maintenance of the quality of the learning process” (SASA 1996 (2)(8.2). At a provincial level the Western Cape Education Department (2007), for example, offers “Guidelines for the Consideration of Governing Bodies in Adopting a Code of Conduct for Learners” to guide school governors in their framing of school rules. In keeping with ever changing school contexts, schools are encouraged to revisit these policies regularly (eg once every third year with the incoming new SGB members). But despite all the policy changes and a noticeable change in student populations at former exclusive schools, general assimilatory practices and little flexibility to accommodate the identities and worldviews of students “of colour” have persisted.

What are the challenges?

On the one hand there is an apparent defence of existing codes of conduct at schools. The supporters of this view seem surprised about what the fuss is about; why people make so much of these issues; why people are so sensitive about hair; and they question what more can be done if schools are already so integrated. They cite practical reasons to bolster their viewpoint. There is, for example, the suggestion that fellow students aren't able to see past bushy hair in the classroom and that schools and society must have rules to function as justification for their stances. Others among this group are conditional in their approach, arguing, for example, that they do not have a problem with long hair, as long as it's neat and out of the face.

On the other hand there appears to be a sense of frustration at being misrecognised, a questioning of why some people need to apologise for looking the way they do or for being who they are. This group seem to wonder what the length or style of their hair has to do with academic achievement and find it difficult to see how hairstyles connect with issues of discipline. For them, hang-ups about hair mask deeper historical prejudices towards particular race groups in South Africa and are therefore nothing but a continuation of racism.

In schools learners and teachers are in relationships of power (either directly inscribed in policies or codes or indirectly exercised through education practices). The misuse of power is often an indication of forcing one’s will on the less powerful. Schools often perceive discipline as a measure by means of which authority is maintained in order to control behaviour when learners display non-conformist or non-submissive behaviour. A disciplined learner, then, is one who submits to authority and power.

For Foucault (1977:177) imposed domination, power and regulation are often at the heart of disciplinary systems. Discipline to him is a general formula of domination which makes possible the meticulous control of the operations of the body, and ensures the constant subjection it forces on those imposed upon (Foucault 1977:137). Schools’ codes of conduct that speak to the issue of discipline are very often a case of “one size fits all” and often do not accommodate difference. Through this, schools often misrecognise social differences among non-traditional entrants.

Misrecognition relates to the ways in which underlying processes and generating structures of fields are not consciously acknowledged in terms of the social differentiation they perpetuate, often in the name of democracy and equality. Learners speaking out in the way that we are seeing is indeed a moment where the players on Bourdieu’s (1990) proverbial field of education are no longer docile. It’s a calling out of a type of an imposition through schooling that amounts to a type of symbolic violence (Bourdieu 1986:110).


One of the results of our country's negotiated settlement was that the racial demographics at some schools changed, but not the schools’ policies or institutional cultures. Policies, despite their best intentions, are very often contested and enacted by people in different contexts, with different ideological perspectives, different value orientations, different agendas. The final words or meanings of a policy, or its encoding in schools, are very often the result of these contestations. The decoding or implementation of policies – in other words, how they are given meaning – is very often realisable only to the extent that the reception discourse around it allows it to be.

The compliance expectation from the education department as well as the labour intensiveness of designing and revising school policies regularly with some schools having the capacity to do so while others have not, have caused schools to engage with policy design and revision in creative ways. Some schools, for example, take existing policies of other schools, tweak them and add their school's name to the revised version in order to get the department off their backs. Most working-class schools have capacity issues as most of their governing body members are people with low education levels, and low levels of experience of governance and management. These actions often result in learners’ being sidelined and not being consulted in the process.

Resistance to change after 1994 also saw some school communities engaging in covert ways to keep the school population homogeneous and maintain previously held privileges. Parents in such schools often see the influx of other race groups as devaluation and therefore want to maintain exclusivity and in so doing remain anti-transformational in character. Parents would, for example, through old boy clubs, withhold their money if the schools do not fulfil their agenda. These schools very often pursue assimilatory practices that mask racial exclusivity under the guise of quality, academic standards, tradition and sustainability.

For the sake of a desperately needed rainbow nation in the early nineties, some South Africans refrained from talking about uncomfortable issues and so these issues have remained unresolved. The youth have for more than 20 years been asked to keep calm and focus on uniting our country (during President Mandela’s time), to allow for the economy to grow (during the Mbeki period) and to let the adults speak (during the Zuma period).

Marginalised youth were effectively asked to be passengers in democracy. Critical voices became quiet from fear of being politically incorrect or racist. But unresolved issues have been festering. What today’s student struggles reveal is a resurgence of unresolved issues. It can be viewed as a way of speaking back – back to years of domination and subjugation, of being told to be quiet, of being disciplined.

Our approach to this is too often managerialist, based on the assumption that changing the policy will automatically change people’s social behaviour. When the news of the hair issues in these schools broke, the minister of basic education, for example, reacted by saying, “It’s not a race issue, but a policy issue” (SABC news, 29 August 2016).

Immediately after the incident, schools were instructed to revise their policies.

The limitations in dealing with issues such as discipline, identity, race, inclusion/exclusion and so on in managerialist ways are that it often ignores the deeply rooted social contexts of the problem. It is problematic in that it is often pathologising, since by underplaying the importance of social context it assumes that failure is located in institutions and their staffs. In fact, education management in general are too often informed by positivist social science which, while poorly theorised in terms of explicit social theory, in fact has an implicit secret theory which is individualist, a-historical, monocultural and functionalist (Thrupp and Willmott 2003:4). This is also an area which usually “bleaches context from its analytic frame” (Slee and Weiner 1998), being too technicist and too generic to take much account of the social dimensions of education.

How do we disrupt the narrative?

C Wright Mills (2000) explains that all individuals live their own biography within shared social structures (such as schools). To understand individual lives, we need to understand the times in which we live and the circumstances of other people. Our past won’t stop being part of our discourse, because it is so ingrained in our history. It is painful, but our challenge is to work against its reproduction and to explore spaces for intervention. Our challenge in our classrooms is not only to deliver the curriculum in a mutually productive way, but also to open up spaces and mediate ways of lessening its negative effects and make people more well-disposed to others.

As teachers, I suggest, we need to develop a language of interruption based on a shared understanding of what has gone wrong in the past and the need to redress it as a collective. This does not imply that we look back to blame, but rather that we build a reflective spirit in order to open us up for constant renewal. We need to understand that our ideas of identity, inclusion or exclusion and a disciplined body are very often informed by various forms of violence and subjugation. This has led to the kinds of cultural domination, non-recognition or disrespect that we currently see in our schools. To remedy this we need to teach with more recognition (Fraser 1995) by embracing multiculturalism and respecting cultural value differences without attempting to change people’s identities. Teaching for democracy should not only include teaching within and for the respect of the rule of law, or for the mind only, but also teaching for the heart.

Our assumptions of others influence our attitudes towards and our interactions with them. Our tolerance levels are brought to bear when we show humility by really listening to others when they speak and not thinking that we have figured out everything about people with different lived realities from ours. This is where the hard work lies. We cannot leave it up to the victim to figure out what is wrong but to teach beyond the confinements of the classroom or the schoolyard and interrupt notions of othering in all spheres of our lives. This might help us understand that when parents or students “sign up” for specific schools, their decisions are based, in one way or another, on a calculation of what that specific school can provide for them in terms of upward mobility. In their quest to be absorbed into schools, students are willing to overlook things, to maintain low profiles or not to question. This, however, does not mean carte blanche consent to stigmatisation and symbolic violence by narrow-minded individuals.

Doing all of the above is, of course, no guarantee that things will improve, but it will certainly help us change the narrative in our country and provide us with more hope that we can shift our focus from difference to common citizenship.


Although policy changes laid the foundation for desegregation in schools, those were not enough to ensure the quality of integration in personal relationships between learners, parents, teachers, institutional organisation and the ethos of schools. The result is that, after twenty years of democracy, schools are still grappling with the legacy of the past. This is evident in schools' continued covert racial practices that valorise dominant racial identities. There remains an uncomfortable co-existence in our society, where wealth has not yet been equally redistributed, and also in our schools, where people are still not being recognised. But education is an essential aspect of meeting the challenges posed by integration. The motto of our coat of arms, “!ke e: /xarra / / ke”, which literally means “diverse people unite”, reminds us of our historical duty to respect the desires, needs and dreams of all those who enter our schools and classrooms. We cannot live successfully as communities and as a nation if we do not respect one another’s differences, while recognising how these diverse elements shape our futures.

As university lecturers we have the opportunity to speak into the lives of teachers. Given the discussion, we need to ask ourselves how we disrupt the notions of difference and bring about common citizenship. More importantly, what are we doing to prepare the students we are teaching to recognise and respect difference and build on similarities?


Bourdieu, P. 1986. The forms of capital. In Richardson (ed) 1986.

 —. 1990. In other words: Essays towards a reflexive sociology. Stanford: Stanford University Press.

Foucault, M. 1977. Discipline and punish: The birth of the prison. London, Penguin.

Fraser, N. 1995. From redistribution to recognition? Dilemmas of justice in a post-socialist age. New Left Review, 212:68–93.

Mills, C. 2000. The sociological imagination. New York: Oxford University Press.

Republic of South Africa. The Constitution of the Republic of South Africa. 1996. Available at Accessed on 5 October 2016.

Richardson, J (ed). 1986. Handbook of theory and research for the sociology of education. New York, Greenwood Press.

Slee, R, G Weiner with S Tomlinson (eds). 1998. School effectiveness for whom? London: Falmer Press.

South African Schools Act. 1996. Accessed on 6 October 2016.

Thrupp, M and R Willmott. 2003. Education management in managerialist times beyond the textual apologists. Philadelphia: Open University Press.

Western Cape Education Department, 2007. Learner discipline and school management.

YouTube. 2016. Racism row over SA schools hair policies. 29 August. Accessed on 5 October 2016.


  • Jerome Joorst: Lecturer, Department of Education Policy Studies, Stellenbosch University


Hierdie artikel is deel van LitNet Akademies (Opvoedkunde) se universiteitseminaar. Klik op die “University Seminar 2016”-banier hierbo om alle essays wat deel vorm van die gesprek, te lees.

This article forms part of the ongoing university seminar, with new essays continually being added. Please click on the “University Seminar 2016” banner above to follow the ongoing conversation and to read more essays on education, access, transformation, language and the Constitution.

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  • Die probleem is juis dat daar hard probeer word om almal te integreer en gelyk te probeer maak. Dit lei outomaties daartoe dat sekere mense geaffronteer sal word omdat kultuur en waardestelsels soms baie verskil van mekaar. Multikultuur kan net slaag as elke kultuur se bestaanreg erken word. Ongelukkig is daar sekere aspekte van sekere kulture en waarde stelsels wat in konflik staan met ander en onversoenbaar is. Om aan te dring daarop dat die twee in dieselfde omgewing moet vreedsaam verkeer is belaglik of gewoon onosel.

    Sogenaamde liberales dring aan daarop dat mense regte gehandhaaf moet word, maar hulle weet nie werklik wat mmense regte als behels nie. Net die regte wat pas by hul humanistiese uitkyk word voorgehou as die Alfa en Omega.
    Een van die belangrikste mense regte wat daar bestaan is die reg van kultuur of etniese groepe op selfbeskikking. Hierdie reg is so kragtig dat dit in die VN se Internasionale Verdrag vir Politieke en Burger Regte vervat is. Hierdie verdrag is van toepassing op all lande en is ook deur Suid Afrika onderteken in 1994 deur die einste ANC regering.

    Die heel eerste artikel in die verdrag sê die volgende:
    ‘All peoples have the right of self-determination. By virtue of that right they
    freely determine their political status and freely pursue their economic, social and
    cultural development.’

    Dit is dus duidelik dat 'Peoples' - etniese groepe of volke in gewone Afrikaans - het 'n reg om hul eie politieke status te bepaal en om hul ekonomiese, kulturele en sosiale ontwikkeling na te streef. Dus mag daar goed wees soos Afrikaner-skole, Zoeloe-universiteite, Tswana-begraafplase, Xhosa-inisiasieskole, Pedi-besigheidskamer, KhoiSan-sokkerspan, ens. Dit het niks met ras te doen nie maar met basiese menseregte. Enige iemand kaan daarby aansluit, maar dan is die reëls van daardie groep van toepassing.

    Wat beteken dit in die huidige SA-konteks?
    Eenvoudig: Volke-; etniese groepe- of 'peoples' het 'n reg om hule eie instansies te hê waar hulle hul kultuur of sosiale of ekonomiese ontwikkeling kan uitbou. Self hulle eie politieke status te bepaal. Wat meer is is dat die staat verantwoordlik gehou kan word om hierdie strukture help te skep en instand te hou want dit is 'n reg.

    Ons sit juis met 'n probleem in ons onderwysstelsel en baie ander plekke omdat dit nie gebeur nie. Daar word eenvoudig voldoen aan die wat die meeste geweld gebruik se eise. Die gevolg is dat daar geen eienaarskap is van enige instansies nie en dit lei net tot een ding - verval. Ons sien dit elke dag om ons, maar tog is dit net die lawaaimakers en sosiale ingenieurs en magsbehepte politici wat se stemme gehoor word. Die mense wat dit uitwys word rassiste ... en so gly ons oor die afgrond, gelei deur die linkse sosiale ingenieurs en van agter gestoot deur die magsbeheptes.

    Dit is juis deur mense toegelaat om hul eie kultuur en waarde stelsel uit te leef in 'n omgewing waar dit onder hulle beheer is wat die konflik sal stopsit en respek vir mekaar sal herstel.
    Suid-Afrika sal regkom waneer hierdie basies mense reg nie verder ignoreer word nie.

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      Jerome Joorst

      Ai Chris, as jou hunkering na selfbeskikking en onafhanklikheid dan so groot is, hoekom dit hier in Afrika kom wil af forseer? Hoekom praat van 'n Suid-Afrika terwyl jy eintlik 'n staat binne 'n staat bepleit? Daar kan nie twee Suid-Afrika’s wees nie. Ongelukkig is sienings wat gebaseer is op selfsug en isolasie van ander nie 'n werkbare oplossing as jy wil tuis voel in 'n land van diversiteit nie.

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