Pretoria Girls High School, is a free, English-speaking, public school in South Africa. Established in 1905 the school remained white only during the apartheid era. The school was one of the first to desegregate in 1990. At the same time the apartheid system in South Africa was just starting to be dismantled. The school is widely recognized for its academic achievements. It has a large patronage from the diplomatic community. Despite its early participation in desegregation, systemic racism still existed within the school. The pioneer for the fight against oppressive school policies was schoolgirl Zulaikhal Patel. Her story begins in 2016.
The Girls Code of Conduct at the school states that girls’ physical presentation must be “conservative, neat and in keeping with the school uniform”. Influenced by this policy teachers would police students’ physical presentation. They would discriminate against black students and their hairstyles in implementing school policy. Teachers would frequently ask black students to tame their Afro hairstyles by tying them back or straightening them. This exposed an underlying racist attitude within the school. White students’ natural hair and physical appearance was more accepted by the school than their black classmates.
Having been told that her natural, Afro hair was to “exotic”, Zulaikhal and her classmates decided to speak out. At the age of 13 she led a demonstration against the schools hair policy. She also campaigned for an inquiry into allegations of racism at the school. Her protest has inspired others to campaign against and speak out about official policies that are steeped in racial discrimination.
In 2016 Patel was included in the BBC 100 Women List, recognising her as one of the world’s influential female voices. She is an ambassador for the Thuli Madonsela Foundation and the Biko Kids Foundation. She still campaigns in South Africa and continues to be an influential voice in the campaign for decolonisation, anti-racism and anti-sexism today.
-Megan Clout, Junior Girl