Redefining youth activism post-1994

Zulaikha Patel protests at Pretoria High School for Girls.

The photograph of 13-year-old Pretoria High School for Girls pupil Zulaikha Patel standing up to a man with her arms crossed at the wrists above her head has come to be the defining image of the hair protests at South African schools.

However, it is by no means the first time this particular gesture has been seen during a student uprising.

Last year’s Rhodes Must Fall and Fees Must Fall protests were similarly characterised by such images as students clashed with police outside Parliament and other parts of the country.

For Rhodes Must Fall members Rouen Thebus and Simon Rakei, seeing younger people standing up for their rights has, at least in part, been sparked by their own publicised actions at the country’s universities.

“It would be disingenuous to conclude that the RMF/FMF events haven’t shaken the consciousness of our society and abroad,” the two activists told the Tatler in an email as the Sans Souci protests reached boiling point. “Many students who have been actively involved in the RMF/FMF movements were learners in similar institutions prior to entering higher learning spaces, and past experiences of institutional racism sadly continued to resonate even there. But we cannot deny that these learners have their very own insight and trauma in these schools and spaces which also have colonial and apartheid legacies. Much has been written and articulated, just in the last year, as to what and who its purpose was intended to serve and continues to do so.”

They said it was clear that just UCT students had used the statue of Rhodes as a catalyst to debate had used the dominance of whiteness, patriarchy, homophobia, transantagonism and ableism, so too had the learners used the hair policy to point to deeper underlying issues. “And the fact that it has spread so quickly to different schools around the country, reflects that these are shared experiences and not at all isolated. It is undoubtedly an indictment on us all that such young people still have to face and confront violent institutional and structural oppressions rooted and created from our diabolical past. The absence and voyeurism of a particular group around these black struggles also reveals a big part of the problem and its incapability and unwillingness to relinquish its dominance and privilege. From a neutral position, who knows what the future holds or what will happen when an unstoppable force meets an immovable object.”

Mr Thebus and Mr Rakei explained that the use of crossed arms above the head had been adopted by black protest movements in Africa and elsewhere.

“It’s significance ranges from defiance of unjust authority to depicting being non-threatening, which is very necessary, as there is little doubt that the moment black people simply demand the acknowledgment of their humanity, the anti-black status quo will exact violence without hesitation.”

The activists said it was not surprising that such protests had filtered into the schooling system, although the extent of this movement remained to be seen.

“University students, when mounting the call for decolonisation, also emphasised the need of having an Afrocentric knowledge system which would impart African thought and knowledge systems in the curriculum the universities teaches. There exists an intimate link between knowledge and identity with the two forming a dialectic, which are the foundations of any society’s social, political, cultural and economic relations with itself and the world.

“It is therefore not surprising, that places of learning and knowledge become sites in which individuals – especially those historically marginalised and oppressed – use struggle to assert their identity.

“It’s a reflection on the values and ways of thinking embedded in those institutions which overtly often prioritise Eurocentric ways of being and standards while othering those who do not fit that model. It goes without saying how this is problematic in a South African and African context.”

They said that young people were “rightfully claiming what is theirs and what is due to them – and not only as a result of promises of a democratic South Africa, but simply as human beings”.