Evelyn Groenink

Letter from Pretoria

Photo: Ashraf Hendricks

Revolution at a girls' school

6 September 2016 | Damn, I am missing out on the revolution. Where were all these teenage girls with their fists in the air, shouting and singing, when my daughters schooled at Pretoria High School for Girls (PHSG)? Even last year, all I ever saw on the school grounds were polite and quiet pupils in their green dresses and blue blazers who, as soon as you passed them, would chime "Good Morning Ma’am!" Right little ladies they were, black, coloured, Indian and white.

Their appearance was often called dirty, their hairdos likened to birds’ nests

Look at them now with their big afros, fists, tears and screams. Listen to the stories that are told now, after having been silenced for so long. They were "from the bush" if they didn’t get up at 4 AM to "tame" their hair. Their appearance was often called dirty, their hairdos likened to birds’ nests. A girl recounts how three teachers dragged her into the school bathrooms to forcibly wet her hair under the small tap, and pulled it hard to straighten it.

White parents didn’t know how hard it was for the black girls to look ‘acceptable’ –it was much more work than it was for my daughters, for whom it was easier to conform, since the norm was straight and white. Even when they overslept and looked messy as hell, chances of them being punished for looking untidy were infinitely smaller than for the black girl who had some hair out of place or was overheard using her own language.

White parents, including myself, didn’t think much about this. What is hair, after all? But the hair was just the symptom; it really was and is about being reminded, every second of the day, that there is something wrong with you. And we celebrate and congratulate those brave girls for finally giving us that message.

There have been so many congratulations. As if the girls did a nice thing, as if they won a prize. It made my daughter angry. “They are teenage girls, mom. They are 13. They already battle with all the body issues that any girl battles with. And then to live with a standard that you can never meet, that the best you can aspire to is to force yourself to look almost acceptable, to know that you’ll never be right.  It is disgusting and tragic that they finally had to start screaming.”

Oh, the other girls knew. Some, like my daughter, wanted to support, but didn’t know how. For years this remained on the level of stories told in the car ride home, with white parents –me- tsk-tsking; with black parents whose lives had been marked similarly when they were little, but who had come to accept their second-class exterior as simply the way things were. One black mother who took her girls home after the protest was overheard asking her girls ‘why they had never said anything?’ ‘Mum, we tried to tell you and then you would just send us back to do our homework,’ the girls said.

And still, as much as we are to blame as lazy, thick, fearful or subjugated parents, the blame for the suffering does not lie with us. Nor does it entirely lie with the staff of Pretoria Girls High, not with the nice white women who cannot fathom that their aspiration to turn girls into 'ladies’ could ever be racist. (What, they, racist? They never said to any blacks that they didn’t like them because of their colour!)

I know some of these women. They don’t have the foggiest idea about what happened under their watch. They’ll release a statement to say that the few individuals who used swear words or who dragged pupils to "go wash" their hair will be disciplined; that neat small afros will be allowed and that PHSG doesn’t condone racism in any way. They will still not understand what the girls are trying to tell them.

But the blame does not lie with them. The blame lies with the education boss, who came to join the protest, parading as almost a fellow victim instead of what he is: the boss of the women who run the school. He has known. The ANC government has known. How could they not?

But the education department, as any desperate township teacher or principal in a mud hut in the rural areas will attest, has been busy with other things. Newspaper reports have documented case after case of misuse of the education budget, of organising jobs for friends, of an appalling lack of programmes for teacher training, of prioritising dozens of things except quality, multi-coloured, education for all.

If this government would do its job, the white old biddies of Pretoria Girls High would long have been replaced. As it is, save for a few heroic black schools who do miracles with little to no state support, and some well-funded schools run by individual black parents with money, only formerly white schools such as PHSG at least try to deliver education to South Africa’s children.

And that is an even bigger tragedy, I think.

With love from Pretoria,


Image: Sans Souci students protested this week against alleged racism at the school. Photo: Ashraf Hendricks. From article in GroundUp licensed under creative common

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