Cape Town - At the start of a new school year, a Khayelitsha mother is battling to get her son into a high school she says has excluded him over his dreadlocks.
Nonkosi Stofile said there were no problems when she enrolled her son, Azania, for Grade 8 at Bulumko Secondary last year, but that changed on his first day last Wednesday when his hair became an issue.
The family are Rastafarians.
Stofile said she went to the school with her son on the first day of the academic year and heard the teacher telling her son that boys were not allowed to have long hair.
She tried to explain to the teacher that he had long hair for religious reasons.
“The teacher said: ‘If he is not smoking ganja (dagga), he is going to start selling ganja in the school’,” said Stofile.
Stofile said the teacher then told her there had been cases in the past where pupils pretended to be Rastafarians and then sold dagga to other pupils.
Stofile said she told teachers she would give permission for her son to do a drug test and asked to speak to the principal.
She was told he was busy and she returned the next day with her husband but the school then told them to make an appointment with the principal.
They eventually spoke to the principal who asked them to write a letter to the school governing body (SGB) “asking for permission” for Azania to keep his dreadlocks.
She has since submitted two letters to the school: “I returned to the school this morning (Monday) to see if they have an answer for me. I left after waiting for about 90 minutes.”
Principal Gideon Skweyiya confirmed that he had referred Azania’s case to the SGB.
“I asked her (the mother) to write a letter.
“We’ll come back to her with an answer. We have not turned her away,” said Skweyiya.
Asked if Azania had been allowed to attend classes he said: “Not at the moment.”
He said “it is not that we don’t allow dreadlocks” but the code of conduct states that pupils’ hair should be short.
Skweyiya said the SGB would have a meeting to discuss the issue.
Solminic Joseph, an attorney with the Equal Education Law Centre (EELC), said it was aware that schools could discriminate against certain pupils through the rigid enforcement of dress codes.
“This is in violation of a clear Constitutional Court pronouncement that there exists an obligation on schools to reasonably accommodate learners’ sincerely held religious and/or cultural beliefs when implementing school dress codes,” he said.
Joseph added the school had a history of denying Rastafarian pupils access to education due to their dreadlocks.
“The EELC is aware of at least three cases, one in 2012 and two in 2013 where Rastafarian learners were excluded from the school.
“Learners were only allowed back to school after the intervention of the EELC and the Western Cape Education Department.”
The department’s spokesman, Paddy Attwell, said they could not confirm whether the school had turned the pupil away.
“Our district office will investigate and facilitate, as required.”
He said in terms of the South African Schools Act, governing bodies may decide on dress codes, including hair styles, as part of their code of conduct.
“The Department of Basic Education has published guidelines on drafting codes of conduct and dress codes that include the need to respect religious and cultural practice.
“Schools may ask parents to submit a letter from a religious teacher organisation to substantiate a request to deviate from the dress code, according to the national guidelines.”
Attwell said the Department of Education had provided training to SGBs about their roles and responsibilities.
This included drafting codes of conduct, dress codes and disciplinary procedures, in line with constitutional values and the law.