I am not black and I am not a woman, so I feel hesitant to comment about the hair protests which have swept through girl’s schools in South Africa over the last year or so. But as a hair rebel when I was at school, I do feel qualified to add some of my own perspectives, not to attempt to co-opt the brave voices of the girls who are asserting their identities through these protests, but to set the current debate against some kind of context. In David Sherwin’s brilliant script for the Lindsay Anderson film IF (1968), a stinging satire of English Public Schools, the headmaster remarks: “So often I’ve noticed that… it’s the hair rebels who step into the breach when there’s a crisis… whether it be a fire in the house… or to sacrifice a week’s holiday… in order to give a party of slum children seven days in the country.”
When I was at school, not an English Public School, I hasten to add, the hair code was simple. Boy’s hair had to be off the collar and off the ears: short back and sides! How much you left on top was what defined you. Hair rebels were those whose hair length endangered both ears and collars and who exploited the lack of clarity about how much of a fringe you were allowed to the maximum. My own reaction to hair codes was shaped by my perception that short hair, linked to the military conscription which faced all white males in South Africa under Apartheid, symbolized Apartheid itself. The Afrikaans phrase min hare baie dae [short hair, many days] indicated how long one still had left to serve in the army!
The 1979 film Hair, of course, established an alternative vision of hirsute freedom, social liberation and the kind of laissez-faire abandon with which I preferred to identify. In the Afros and braids on the front line of the current hair revolt we can discern similar rallying cries against cultural hegemony, and a South Africa which has undergone change, but no real transformation. Containing black hair, policing black hair is, in many schools, still an issue. Let me say that I don’t think it is an issue of racism primarily. Many of the teachers most vocal in condemning some of the extravagantly provocative Afros we see these days are themselves black. Few of the former Model C or private schools actually ban Afros. But the Afro represents a strident call for the recognition for the need for transformation in a society which saw social transformation surrendered in favour of a neo-liberal agenda which allowed South Africa to remain in the good books of the bankers, but saw inequality widen, and the interests of workers in general, and the black working class in particular sacrificed for the rise of a small black elite.
As teachers we need to support, absolutely the rights of students and parents to regulate their hair as they see fit. Reasonable school rules usually reference neatness alone, and I have no problem with that. We need to recognise that hair rebels, while perhaps not so saintly as to rescue babies from burning buildings, are often at the forefront of challenging what is wrong at the roots of our society!