Can schools expel or suspend pupils over dreadlocks? This is what the law, schools and SAHRC say

File picture: Pexels

File picture: Pexels

Published Aug 17, 2023


Policies about dreadlocks and hair at schools are once again making headlines after a 13-year-old learner was removed from class because of her dreadlocks.

This is reminiscent of previous incidents where learners were either faced with expulsion or were suspended or expelled over their hair.

But are schools allowed to expel pupils on the basis of their hairstyles?

To answer this, we take a look at what different institutions say.

The law

In previous court cases, the judge or magistrate would find that expelling or suspending learners over hairstyles or dreadlocks was discriminatory.

In the 2007 case of MEC for Education: KwaZulu-Natal and Others v Pillay and Others, the Constitutional Court said the following: "At its core is the notion that sometimes the community, whether it is the State, an employer, or a school, must take positive measures and possibly incur additional hardship or expense in order to allow all people to participate and enjoy all their rights equally. It ensures that we do not relegate people to the margins of society because they do not or cannot conform to certain social norms."

This same principle applies to the workplace. Section 187(1)(f) of the Labour Relations Act, No 66 of 1995 (LRA) renders a dismissal ‘automatically unfair’ if the reason for that dismissal is that the employer unfairly discriminated against an employee on any arbitrary ground, including but not limited to race, gender, sex, ethnic or social origin, colour, sexual orientation, age, disability, religion, conscience, belief, political opinion, culture, language, marital status, or family responsibility.

The SA Human Rights Commission

The South African Human Rights Commission (SAHRC) has powers, in terms of the Promotion of Equality and Prevention of Unfair Discrimination Act (PEPUDA), to prohibit discrimination on the grounds of race, gender, ethnic or social origin, colour, culture, and language.

In regards to the prohibition of discrimination on the basis of race, it includes "the exclusion of persons of particular race under any rule or practice that appears to be legitimate but which is actually aimed at maintaining exclusive control by a particular race group".


In South African schools, there are several rules about hairstyles in the Code of Conduct. It is worth noting that each school has its own Code of Conduct, but a number of schools have the same rules regarding hair, such as the following:

For boys, hair should not be too long or have too much volume; it may not reach the collar of their shirts, touch their eyebrows, or touch their ears; hair should not be too short; no extensions; no gel or mousse.

Girls hair should be clean and neat (although you do find that ‘neat’ usually means straightened or ‘not wild’). Hair that is over shoulder length should be tied up, and no extensions are normally allowed.

A few schools allow braids, dreads, and afros, but those that do specify that they should be in the learner’s natural hair colour.

With regards to hair accessories or head scarves, the Code of Conducts ranges from saying they must be plain black or brown or the main uniform colour.

According to University of Cape Town law professor Pierre De Vos on his website, a school should be accommodating when drawing up a school of conduct.

"When a school or other body draws up a code of conduct, it should always provide for the reasonable accommodation of all the different cultural and religious practices of the pupils in that school. This requires more than mere tolerance of what is perceived as weird or alien beliefs and practices; it requires a celebration of the diversity of cultures and religions in South Africa."

Given that the Human Rights Commission as well as the law are clear about the issue, it is hard to believe that it is 2023 and there are still rules about hair in South African schools.


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