South Africa: 'Racist' Hair Rules Suspended After Student Protest at Pretoria High School

South Africa students
South African students march to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the Soweto Uprising in Soweto on June 11. A school in Pretoria has come in for criticism after black students were reportedly not allowed to wear their hair in an Afro style. MARCO LONGARI/AFP/Getty Images

South African students at Pretoria High School for Girls will be allowed to adopt whichever hairstyle they prefer after the provincial education minister ordered allegedly racist rules at the school to be suspended.

Female students at the school in South Africa's capital protested on Monday after black students were reportedly told to straighten their hair and not adopt an afro style.

Old girls begin singing school song in protest #StopRacismAtPretoriaGirlsHigh

— mishka wazar (@ANicheOfLight) August 29, 2016

In a statement issued on Tuesday, Gauteng Department of Education stated that during a visit by Panyaza Lesufi, the province's education minister, it had learned of allegations of racist abuse of black students on the basis of their hair and their speaking in African languages.

"The learners feel that educators use abusive and demeaning language when they address them regarding their hairstyles. For instance, some educators tell them they look like monkeys, or have nests on their heads," said the department. The statement added that use of African languages on school premises "is not tolerated," yet the use of Afrikaans—which is closely associated with the apartheid regime of racial segregation—is permitted.

As a result, the department ordered that a formal, independent investigation into alleged racism at the school be carried out and that the school's Code of Conduct be reviewed, with the clause concerning hairstyles suspended. The Code of Conduct does not specifically proscribe Afro hairstyles, but provides detailed provisions on the length of hair permissible, and students complained that this is interpreted arbitrarily by school authorities.

A statement on the school's website stated that its governing body had held "a successful meeting" with Lesufi and that it would work closely with the department to "resolve the issues which were raised."

Pretoria High School for Girls was founded in 1902 and was a whites-only facility during the apartheid era, which ended in 1994. It is now a multi-racial school, according to its website.

The protest drummed up support on social media, with #StopRacismAtPretoriaGirlsHigh trending in South Africa on Monday. The country's arts and culture minister, Nathi Mthethwa, waded into the row, saying that the government supported the stance of the students "to protect their right to have natural hair" and that it was "unacceptable" to stop students speaking African languages. "Schools should not be used as a platform to discourage students from embracing their African identity," Mthethwa tweeted.

There have been several rows in South Africa in 2016 concerning racism, often sparked by social media comments. Estate agent Penny Sparrow sparked controversy by referring to black people as "monkeys" in a Facebook post in January, which led to her party membership of the Democratic Alliance being revoked and the party lodging criminal charges against her. A High Court judge also appeared to suggest in May that rape was "part of the culture" of black men.