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Pulling Racism Out From the Roots: 4 Young Black Women on Racist Hair Policies in South Africa's Schools

Four young black women share their own stories of racist hair policies in South Africa's schools.

To be a black or brown girl in a whitewashed school is to live in a state of double consciousness. On the one hand, your hair defies gravity; your very essence is counter to the imposition of a homogenous identity conceived by a systemically racist institution. On the other hand, you are young, perhaps told that your opinion is not as valid as that of your superiors and adults, and assimilation seems like the best option.


What has transpired over the past week at Pretoria High School for Girls has unravelled the twisted tales we may have been feeding ourselves since departing from model C schools as young black women. This may be an indication of the revolutionary tide sweeping up defiant black bodies that are younger, tuned into the frequency of decolonisation, their thumbs tapped into the interconnected cyber reality of inter-diasporic evolution.

We caught up with some young black women to gauge the tide of pulling racism out from the roots.

Qiniso Van Damme, 23

Courtesy of Qiniso van Damme.

“I have gone to former model C schools my entire life, seven to be exact. As a student at both Pretoria High School for Girls and Rustenburg Girls High School, I was told by the staff of both institutions, on multiple occasions, not only that my hair was inappropriate, but that I had to sit detention or receive some form of disciplinary action because of its appearance. The words, ‘your hair is too ethnic, you need to fix it or relax it’ were familiar phrases to me.

In grade 9 I was even driven to, for the first time in my life, relax my hair. I will never forget the expression on my sister's when she came home one day in 2008 to find her little sister kneeling in front of the mirror rubbing vaseline on her blistered, burnt scalp, obsessively brushing the few tufts of straight hair that had survived the relaxer. It was a look of absolute horror because she knew that I loved my natural hair to bits, as thick and curly and stubborn as it was. I did it because I was made to feel like who I was, in my natural state, was unruly, savage and ugly. I was made to hate myself and my people and how we looked by the staff at those seven schools and especially Rustenburg Girls High School and Pretoria Girls High, and they succeeded because there I sat in front of the mirror, almost bald, heavily blistered and deeply damaged. I have not relaxed my hair since that fateful day because somehow I have fought all the demons that those racist schools left me with.

To this day I am baffled as to how my hair was too ‘ethnic’ yet, in asking me, correction, in forcing me to relax my hair they were paradoxically in fact asking me to be ethnic, but to be ethnic within whiteness, to conform to whiteness. White womxn could have their hair the way their mothers’ wombs destined their hairs to be, they could have their hair according to their ethnicity, yet my mother's creation, me in all the glory that I am, was not allowed, was punished, humiliated and belittled.”

Gugulethu Duma, 25

Courtesy of Gugulethu Duma.

“I remember they would always complain about our braids, banning ‘complicated cornrow’ styles, stating that it had to strictly go straight back. The boys with cornrows and dreadlocks got the same slack. They always complimented me when I had the weaves. We had to tie our hair in high pony tails, never wild and free (we weren't aloud to speak our mother tongues either, not unless it was break time or after school - but that's for another day). I remember my mom purchasing gel she'd never used before, for my ballet recitals and shows. I made her do it. Mrs. Wright needed my hair to be flat and thin. The bun needed to be bigger, to be seen. The gel broke my hair like the relaxer did. They tried to force us to resent growth and detest the roots of our kinky, wild crowns. The unlearning has been one long, beautiful, pained liberation.”

Malaika Evans, 21

Photo by Chaze Matakala.

“Growing up in England and going to a predominantly white school, the hair discussion was seldom brought up. But when it was, words such as ‘slimy,’ ‘greasy,’ ‘unkempt’ were common accompaniments to the discussion. I remember frantically straightening my hair every morning–– depriving my crown of the things it needed in order to fit in with my straight-haired counterparts.

High school [in South Africa] was not much different. The same outdated rules applied. I just had lost all confidence in my natural hair and I didn't even realise this was an issue until one of my friends was told her afro ‘should not be associated with the school uniform.’ And I thought how it’s her hair, it’s complete natural.

All of these close-minded oppressions of the expression of the natural body culminated in

me only loving and letting my natural hair be at the age of 19. Now I’m out heeeeeeere.”

Jabu Nadia Newman, 22

Courtesy of Jabu Nadia Newman.

“I went to a private Waldorf School where we were allowed to wear normal clothes and were pretty free to choose our appearances but still there was discrimination against being black and what us black could do with our hair.

I remember that the rule on dying hair was that you could only dye your hair what was a natural colour to you. Which meant that white people could dye their hair black, brown, blonde and red. Whereas I could only dye my hair black. I remember being so angry about that. There also was absolutely no shaving allowed so our black brothers weren't allowed to ever shave their head or even get a fade.

What the young womxn of San Souci and Pretoria High School for Girls are doing is incredible and a big step in the right direction. It seems almost criminal to have schools in South Africa to not allow black womxn to wear their hair naturally. It is entirely an attack on black people and South African citizens and a disgrace to the idea that South Africa is a democratic country. Why have we not fought this before?!”

Chaze has got Zambian roots and is currently making the most out of a polyamorous relationship between poetry, photography and documentary filmmaking in Cape Town.

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Introducing OkayAfrica's 100 Women 2020 List

Celebrating African Women Laying the Groundwork for the Future

It would not be hyperbole to consider the individuals we're honoring for OkayAfrica's 100 Women 2020 list as architects of the future.

This is to say that these women are building infrastructure, both literally and metaphorically, for future generations in Africa and in the Diaspora. And they are doing so intentionally, reaching back, laterally, and forward to bridge gaps and make sure the steps they built—and not without hard work, mines of microaggressions, and challenges—are sturdy enough for the next ascent.

In short, the women on this year's list are laying the groundwork for other women to follow. It's what late author and American novelist Toni Morrison would call your "real job."

"I tell my students, 'When you get these jobs that you have been so brilliantly trained for, just remember that your real job is that if you are free, you need to free somebody else. If you have some power, then your job is to empower somebody else."

And that's what inspired us in the curation of this year's list. Our honorees use various mediums to get the job done—DJ's, fashion designers, historians, anthropologists, and even venture capitalists—but each with the mission to clear the road ahead for generations to come. Incredible African women like Eden Ghebreselassie, a marketing lead at ESPN who created a non-profit to fight energy poverty in Eritrea; or Baratang Miya, who is quite literally building technology clubs for disadvantaged youth in South Africa.

There are the builds that aren't physically tangible—movements that inspire women to show up confidently in their skin, like Enam Asiama's quest to normalize plus-sized bodies and Frédérique (Freddie) Harrel's push for Black and African women to embrace the kink and curl of their hair.

And then there are those who use their words to build power, to take control of the narrative, and to usher in true inclusion and equity. Journalists, (sisters Nikki and Lola Ogunnaike), a novelist (Oyinkan Braithwaite), a media maven (Yolisa Phahle), and a number of historians (Nana Oforiatta Ayim, Leïla Sy) to name a few.

In a time of uncertainty in the world, there's assuredness in the mission to bring up our people. We know this moment of global challenge won't last. It is why we are moving forward to share this labor of love with you, our trusted and loyal audience. We hope that this list serves as a beacon for you during this moment—insurance that future generations will be alright. And we have our honorees to thank for securing that future.

EXPERIENCE 100 WOMEN 2020

The annual OkayAfrica 100 Women List is our effort to acknowledge and uplift African women, not only as a resource that has and will continue to enrich the world we live in, but as a group that deserves to be recognized, reinforced and treasured on a global scale. In the spirit of building infrastructure, this year's list will go beyond the month of March (Women's History Month in America) and close in September during Women's Month in South Africa.

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Burna Boy 'African Giant' money cover art by Sajjad.

The 20 Essential Burna Boy Songs

We comb through the Nigerian star's hit-filled discography to select 20 essential songs from the African Giant.

Since bursting onto the scene in 2012 with his chart-topping single, "Like to Party," and the subsequent release of his debut album, L.I.F.E - Leaving an Impact for eternity, Burna Boy has continued to prove time and again that he is a force to be reckoned with.

The African Giant has, over the years, built a remarkable musical identity around the ardent blend of dancehall, hip-hop, reggae, R&B, and afropop to create a game-changing genre he calls afro-fusion. The result has been top tier singles, phenomenal collaborations, and global stardom—with several accolades under his belt which include a Grammy nomination and African Giant earning a spot on many publications' best albums of 2019.

We thought to delve into his hit-filled discography to bring you The 20 Essential Burna Boy Songs.

This list is in no particular order.

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(Photo Illustration by Rafael Henrique/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)

Rejoice! WhatsApp Places New Restrictions on Chain Messages to Fight Fake News

To combat the spread of misinformation due to the coronavirus outbreak, users are now restricted from sharing frequently forwarded messages to more than one person.

The rise of the novel coronavirus has seen an increase in the spread of fake news across social media sites and platforms, particularly WhatsApp—a platform known as a hotbed for the forwarding of illegitimate chain messages and conspiracy theories (if you have African parents, you're probably familiar). Now the Facebook-owned app is setting in place new measures to try and curb the spread of fake news on its platform.

The app is putting new restrictions on message forwarding which will limit the number of times a frequently forwarded message can be shared. Messages that have been sent through a chain of more than five people can only subsequently be forwarded to one person. "We know many users forward helpful information, as well as funny videos, memes, and reflections or prayers they find meaningful," announced the app in a blog post on Tuesday. "In recent weeks, people have also used WhatsApp to organize public moments of support for frontline health workers."

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Sarkodie Hits Hard With His Latest Single 'Sub Zero'

The Ghanaian heavyweight rapper shows up with the fire bars over an Altra Nova-produced beat.

Sarkodie has dropped a new aggressive track in the shape of "Sub Zero."

"Sub Zero" follows the star Ghanaian rapper as he throws back criticisms that have come his way from other rappers with his own ice cold flow. The new track was produced by Ghanaian beatmaker Altra Nova and mixed by PEE On Da BeaT.

"Sub Zero" follows Sarkodie's turn-up single "Bumper," which dropped bak in February.

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