The politics of hair and language

On Sunday morning I had a delightful breakfast with some friends I had not seen in a long time, over breakfast we discussed the Hawks, the Burkini ban in France and Sipho Pitayana’s speech, which for all of us was fascinating. We all postulated different theories on what would follow, and the possible impact on SA politics. This was top of mind and little did I expect to wake up to news of a protest at Pretoria Girl’s High school. But as we all know South Africa is one dynamic place and there is never a dull moment in Mzansi.

In my half awakened state on Monday morning little could I believe that the issue of girls’ hair, more specifically the hair of black- African schoolgirls could be an issue in the year 2016!!

Facebook friends posted about their experience of school rules pertaining to hair and about other school rules relating to language. This jogged my memory about the language policy of the high school I attended. At Stanger High (Model C) school the official school languages were English and Afrikaans. Students were admonished for speaking isiZulu in the corridors of that learning institution. Which is ironic if one considers the lost opportunity of students to learn isiZulu from their schoolmates. As isiZulu was not an exam subject it raised no ire from any of the parents.

Looking back though, I think what an awful experience for the isiZulu speakers in my class, the school language policy created a reality, which was separate and distinct from actual realty where most people in KZN speak isiZulu. But we all had to conform and fit into this imagined realty where English and Afrikaans were given status. There is no doubt that the language policy of the school was veiled racism. This was however, the 1990s in South Africa and so in the context of  the time somewhat unsurprising given that the nation was wrestling with the new ideas, and identities and there was a tussle between holding on to the past and creating a very different future. In 2016 the policies at Sans Souci and Pretoria Girls High, around hair and language is unforgivable.

At the same time that I was getting goosebumps over pictures of the brave young girls protesting at Pretoria High School and admiring their chutzpah, another video was appearing on my FaceBook feed; that of two Muslim women in France being refused service at a restaurant. This incident followed hot on the heels of the burkini ban. The parallels between the events in France and that at Pretoria Girls High are stark and can be summed up neatly in one word – Coercion. Arundhati Roy used the term coercion to frame the debate on the burkini ban in France. And it is the most apt and tidy way of describing it.

The hair policy at Pretoria Girls High and the Burkini ban are not just about isolated policies. They highlight issues of cultural supremacy and what is considered to be the acceptable norm. The issue of cultural supremacy takes me back to the issue of language.

On the question of language I find that there is a lot more for me to unpack. As a South African of Indian heritage I frequently question my parents on their decision not to speak Gujerati to me as my mother tongue. My situation is not uncommon. One would be hard pressed to find any South African of Indian heritage under 40 who can speak any Indian language fluently. A few like myself who were fortunate to have the influence of their grandparents would manage a smattering but would be restricted in their ability to have an easy flowing conversation.

When one digs a bit deeper, parents of children born in the 70s and 80s saw English as a sign of upward mobility; English and Afrikaans were proper languages, the languages of education. And so my parents generation successfully killed off a linguistic heritage. I am sure the cultural boycott by India also played a part; but by giving greater preference to English future generations are now the poorer for it.  The loss of language was no more acutely felt that with the recent rule by the SABC to play more content of local artists. This highlighted the linguistic deficit among South Africans of Indian heritage. Most of the content played by radio lotus is imported from India. In the UK however, there is a vibrant South Asian music scene. Artists like Jay Sean debuted onto the music scene signing in Punjabi.

Some may argue that by shedding Indian languages it helped cement a more South African identity.  Perhaps there is some truth to that; I am by no means arguing that language should have been used as a tool to keep a community insular, but rather I am highlighting the cultural preeminence given to English, has done my generation a disservice.

Culture and language are dynamic and ever evolving, who knows, if my generation and the future generations had greater proficiency, perhaps it would have created the space for a pidgin to develop, a combination of Zulu and Tamil or Gujerati.

I would end of by once again taking my hat off to the girls of Pretoria High School. Although we are frustrated that these types of debates still happen in our country and the attitudes they represent. The girls of Pretoria Girls High and Sans Souci do us proud as champions of equality and builders of a better South Africa. Shehnaz Cassim -Moosasans