What “hairgate” tells us about our future

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This week, news headlines in South Africa were dominated by one story. The story was not Pravin Gordhan’s ongoing saga with the Hawks, or the issues at state-owned enterprises. The story was about the hair policy at Pretoria Girls High School.

Code of conductA media monitoring organisation has reported that the school policy story took nearly a quarter of all news coverage, followed by coverage of the finance minister's current situation at 9% of all stories. The solar eclipse garnered 3.94% share of news coverage compared to proceedings to appoint a new public protector which was the focus of just 1.25% of news stories over the past week.

South Africans have been talking about the allegations of racism at the school, and how the hair policy is an example of systemic prejudice and discrimination. It has become a highly charged political battle, with senior government officials – among them Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa – publicly stating their support for the protesting girls.

For anyone who has not seen any media coverage around the issue, the short version is that a group of learners at the school started a protest against the dress code, saying they had been told repeatedly that the natural state of their hair is too "exotic" to fit into the regulations. Gauteng Education MEC Panyaza Lesufi has subsequently heard testimony from black girls at the school over the allegations of victimisation.

The testimony included one girl’s statement that her Afro was described as a dirty bird's nest, as well as another’s assertion that black girls weren’t allowed to stand in groups and were accused of being too involved in political and race issues.

Predictably, race issues have been the core of all the media coverage and conversations around the school’s treatment of the girls. What has been largely overlooked, however, is the fact that many generations of South Africans have passed through schools that strongly enforced the same draconian codes of conduct that are being protested against, often with corporal punishment.

More importantly, what has been largely overlooked is what effect this has had – and is continuing to have – on the mentality of South Africans passing through the school system.

The Pretoria Girls High School has a 34 page Code of Conduct that details how socks, skirts, jerseys, blazers and hair should be worn. Most former Model C schools have very similar documents. Originating in 1800s traditions, South Africa’s school codes were designed to churn out yes-men who have learned to blindly follow rules, are loyal to the “pride” the school supposedly engenders in them, and accept discipline for transgressions without question.

Essentially, South Africa’s school system is designed to stifle entrepreneurship, innovation, and experimentation.

In a world where learners are punished for wearing a skirt that is not more than 10cm above the knee when kneeling, a world where parents have to beg schools to allow their children to be exempt from wearing heavy blazers in the middle of a heatwave, and a world where the hairstyle worn by learners eclipses their academic performance, there is no room for thinking outside of the box. In this world, conformity is key to success.

Conformity – and indoctrination – should be at the heart of the conversation around Pretoria Girls High School. Obviously, racism is unacceptable and must be eradicated, but if our schools are going to continue to blindly enforce rules that no longer serve a purpose in the real world, our future is in serious jeopardy.

In today’s world, being different, thinking differently, and pushing boundaries are the things that set business leaders apart from followers. If the founders of Uber and Netflix had blindly conformed to how things “should be done”, those two innovative companies would never have existed.

At its core, South Africa’s school system has been created to ensure that no-one comes up with a Netflix or an Uber unless those models are part of the traditional approach to things. At its core, South Africa’s school system was designed to churn out suit-and-tie wearing drones.

In a world where people work from coffee shops and entrepreneurs are launching rockets into space, drones only have a use in support capacities. South Africa’s schools should ask themselves whether they want to produce drones, or develop the leaders of the future.

Image credit: Copyright: convisum / 123RF Stock Photo

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Crown Publications, one of South Africa’s largest business-to-business publishing houses, came into existence in 1986. Since then, the company has grown from producing a single magazine, Electricity SA (renamed Electricity+Control), to publishing six monthly magazines, three quarterlies, and a number of engineering handbooks.