South African schoolgirls provide leadership for the ongoing revolution
The recent courageous protest by students of Pretoria Girls High School against school rules embodying racist prejudices has its antecedents in the historic student protests of Soweto 40 years ago.
Marsha Adebayo and Siki Dlanga
PRETORIA Girls High School was shaken to its core in August when Black girls attending this apartheid-era elite school challenged fundamental tenets of white supremacy. This challenge occurred in Pretoria, the official seat of the apartheid regime, a city known for its brutality and savage treatment of Africans. (The city has since been renamed, in the post-apartheid era, Tshwane.)
Refusing to bow down to long-held notions of European beauty standards and African inferiority, the girls, who were around 13 years old, asserted that their humanity was not negotiable. With afros and dignity intact, they bravely raised their little fists under the South African sky and shook the world.
The girls were protesting racist practices embodied in school guidelines which forced Black girls to straighten their African hair as well as imposed penalties for Black girls socialising together in groups.
Forty years ago, about an hour from Pretoria Girls High School, a 13-year-old boy named Hector Zolile Peterson was shot dead by the apartheid regime. Soweto 1976 has become part of protest language among young Black South Africans. Hector was shot in Soweto while he and his fellow students were protesting against using Afrikaans, the language of their oppressors, as the official language of instruction. The young man, Mbuyisa Makhubu, photographed carrying Hector in his arms went missing in the days following Hector's murder. The apartheid government sought to hunt him down after the photograph became a symbol of the viciousness of the deadly apartheid regime. His family is still searching for him.
The valiant protest of the Pretoria schoolgirls 40 years after Hector's death reveals the continuity of the struggle for liberation and confirms that the Soweto uprising was not in vain.
The death of Nelson Mandela exposed the underbelly of neoliberal economic policies that tolerated Black leadership in South Africa but exploded racial and class inequalities. The negotiated 'peace' blessed by Western powers in London, Amsterdam and Washington maintained white economic global power in the country at the expense of the Black majority. A new generation of activists now draws on the likes of Steven Bantu Biko, Chris Hani, the young activists of the 1976 Soweto uprising and Robert Sobukwe in order to ignite the unfinished business of South Africa's total liberation.
The #RhodesMustFall movement, which began 9 March 2015 at the University of Cape Town, arguably sparked this contagious flame that has now found new expression among young schoolgirls. At the heart of the RMF movement is the decolonisation conversation. It addresses decolonisation of spaces, minds, languages, education and land. It speaks of total freedom from all kinds of manifestations of white domination faced by Black South Africans daily as a result of the legacy of the global system of white supremacy and apartheid. This movement in turn gave rise to the #FeesMustFall movement which demanded free tuition in South African universities for both students and Black maintenance workers who are usually condemned to intergenerational poverty.
The 13-year-old Pretoria Girls High School student leader Zulaikha Patel is often referred to as 'little Angela Davis' by South Africans. She was iconically photographed with a defiant gaze before a white policeman, considered the oppressor of Black identity and freedom. In the photograph, her young arms are crossed just above her head, which is crowned by an unmistakable afro. What inspired the world was seeing Zulaikha, wearing her school uniform, standing before a large white male whose build is what is instinctively identified in South Africa as the figure of an Afrikaaner man.
Dogs and security were brought to the school to stop the girls from protesting. Officials and security tried to intimidate the girls by saying they would arrest them. The girls responded with the fierce chant: 'Arrest us!'
Other schools have since seen similar protests, among them Sans Souci Girls High School.Students in this school made headlines protesting against racist practices that included imposing punishment and fines if the girls spoke their African mother tongue, Xhosa. Sans Souci, a former white school located in the leafy Cape Town suburb of Newlands, forced the girls to speak English even when they were outside of the school premises. Girls showed evidence on their merit books where they were de-merited for speaking Xhosa. Black schoolchildren symbolically tore the books as a form of protest, symbolising the burning of apartheid-era pass books which were issued in order to control the movement of Black South Africans.
One of the parents of the protesting Sans Souci girls, interviewed for this article, said: 'The principal of the school has a really old colonial mindset.' The girls are demanding the resignation of the white school principal, Charmaine Murray, tweeting and shouting #MurrayMustFall. They call for a Black school principal to replace her. This would be the first time that Black students have asserted such power at such a school. Black students at Sans Souci have a detailed list of demands that include addressing white supremacy and the inclusion of their native tongues as part of the school curriculum. The Sans Souci principal went into hiding during the protest after years of terrorising Black children.
The current student movements have their antecedents in the youth movements of 40 years ago. These students are fighting for their lives, their dignity and their humanity. Learning and speaking one's language is a fundamental principle that must be affirmed in the fight against white supremacy. Language contains a people's memory, their stories and their heritage. It is how South Africans remember purpose, nation, family, love and community.
After thousands signed an online petition supporting the Pretoria students, the head of Gauteng province's education department ordered the code of conduct clause dealing with hairstyles to be suspended.
The Pretoria Girls High School protest is built upon the wings of the anti-colonial struggle in South Africa and should provide inspiration to Black girls colonised in the US, Europe and around the world.
Dr. Marsha Adebayo is editor of and columnist with the Black Agenda Report website (www.blackagendareport.com), from which this article is reproduced. She is the author of the Pulitzer Prize-nominated No FEAR: A Whistleblower's Triumph over Corruption and Retaliation at the EPA. She worked at the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) for 18 years and blew the whistle on a US multinational corporation that endan-gered South African vanadium mine workers. Her successful lawsuit led to the introduction and passage of the first civil rights and whistleblower law of the 21st century: the Notification of Federal Employees Anti-discrimination and Retaliation Act of 2002 (No FEAR Act). She is Director of Transparency and Accountability for the Green Shadow Cabinet, serves on the Advisory Board of ExposeFacts.com and coordinates the Hands Up Coalition, DC.
Siki Dlanga is the South African author of a poetry anthology Word of Worth. She is also a columnist and a creative activist based in Cape Town. She leads Freedom Mantle, a Christian initiative that supports emerging leaders to shape a new South African narrative. Freedom Mantle participates in and initiates spaces of activism in pursuit of a more just nation and world.
*Third World Resurgence No. 312/313, Aug/Sept 2016, pp 56-57