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Maybe it IS just about hair

| April 11, 2017 | 0 Comments


The statement usually goes like this: “The spokesman urged the school to scrap rules that prohibit pupils from wearing their hair in the way that feels natural to them. They should be able to wear their hair in a way that reflects their cultural heritage.”

The date 24 February was a bad day in the “hair history” of my old school. No, not this year, but way back in 1984. On that day, 26 boys were caned… not for failing a test, but for failing a hair inspection. Other bad hair days included 8 June 1982, when 24 boys were caned for long hair, and 21 June 1979, when the “bad hair” count reached 19. In 1979, that would have been more than 5% of the total number of boys at the school.

Counting the costs

One of the weirder souvenirs I have from more than three decades in education is the corporal punishment register from the school I attended as a pupil and then taught at several years later. It covers the period from 1 May 1979 to 6 November 1986. The last name recorded was that of the luckless Judd, who received three strokes for “annoying Mrs Booth”.

Fortunately for me, the book falls into the gap between my departure as a pupil and arrival as a teacher. I attended high school in the 1970s, just as Christian National Education1 was reaching its zenith. I would imagine that the “powers that be” at the time2 would have had definite ideas with regard to how I dealt with my cultural heritage. They would have wanted me to admire someone like Jan van Riebeeck.3 Unfortunately Van Riebeeck did not appeal to me; my cultural icons were Jimmy Page, lead guitarist of the music band Led Zeppelin, and Ken Hensley, the keyboard player in the equally brilliant band Uriah Heep. But despite the significant differences in their backgrounds and ideologies, all three men had one thing in common: they all had long hair.

No matter who my heroes were, though, the school authorities were not interested in their follicular prowess. Hair was kept short. Hair inspections took place regularly and the standard punishment was two strikes of the cane. If you failed to cut your hair after corporal punishment, you suffered the indignity of being sent off to Steff ’s, the local barber, where you would receive a decent, if unfashionable, haircut. And three more cuts.

I remember once being told by the vice principal that there would be a hair inspection after break and that I would fail it. Just before the inspection, I wet my hair and combed it flat and managed to sneak past the watchful eyes of the hair police. It didn’t work, though. When the vice principal saw I wasn’t in the line outside the office, he fetched me from class and added me to it.

Interesting infractions

The punishment book suggests that hair infractions were the third most common cause for the administration of corporal punishment. Second place went to “failing tests” and the undoubted winner was the eternal combination of “homework not done” adjoined to “not working in class”. The book was certainly an official document. On 8 June 1979, it was signed by the venerable J Labuschagne, inspector of education.

Whether he was impressed with the record or not isn’t revealed. It provides a fascinating look at just what boys (not girls) could be punished for in those days. Predictably, you were caned for being “rude to the teacher”, “swearing” or “bunking class”.

There are some delightful one-offs, though. One poor fellow named Dutch was punished for being “overenthusiastic during the departure of the matrics” after their final assembly. Come on! You should see how enthusiastically some staff members react these days when the matrics leave. M Wood was caned (four times) for “not bringing back his military registration forms”. That would make him a hero in my eyes.

Other infractions, which by today’s standards would probably be ignored, include “hands in pockets”, “passing a note in class”, “making funny noises in class” and “copied incorrectly from the board”.

One Newton was probably a popular boy. He received three cuts on 13 February 1986 for “distracting the class with soft pornography”. Given the non-availability of little else other than Scope magazine4 in those days, I am sure whatever it was that he shared would be regarded as very prudish when compared to the average 21st century music video, in which clothing is optional and most singers seem to suffer asthma attacks. Poor old Newton was probably just warming up for Valentine’s Day.

Undoubtedly the most romantic entry goes to a boy named Van Niekerk who, on 3 March 1986, was caned three times. His crime: “Kissing a girl in the corridor (lengthily).” The length of the kiss is not recorded. It is not clear what punishment the girl received. Her name isn’t even mentioned, but I’m sure she was very pretty. I’m sure that the punishment was worth the crime. Maybe it was their one-month anniversary – a good length for school romances. Maybe on 3 March every year, Van Niekerk (who would be in his late forties by now) thinks back fondly to that time.

Hair there and everywhere

My own battles with the hair police led to few victories. I was packed off to do compulsory national service5 a month after finishing school, and for two years I was restricted to very short back and sides whenever I was within the clutches of a barber. As soon as I was freed from this barbarous existence, I let my hair down. In the late 1970s, there were still hair restrictions at certain universities, although students were allowed to smoke. Long hair was presumably more dangerous to your health than smoking. I was fortunate enough to attend a proper university, not a high school with ashtrays, and so I grew my hair as long as I could. I remember coming home for my first June vacation and my sister telling me I looked like a shunter on the railways. I took it as a compliment! Then I became a teacher and it all fell out.

Context and proportion key

I am not suggesting that that the “hair issue of 2016”6 is not important, but I do think we need to see it in proportion and context. Teenagers of all backgrounds and time periods have always fought against the system. Corporal punishment was not the solution. The repetition of offences and surnames suggests that caning boys does not stop them from bunking class, avoiding homework, irritating teachers or growing their hair. Maybe we just need to accept the fact that teenagers don’t like hair restrictions… or doing homework… or being told they can’t play games on their cellphones during class – although strangely that one is not recorded in the punishment book. 

Andrew Renard teaches English at St Andrew’s College in Grahamstown, in the Eastern Cape. References: 1. See, for example: society/south_africa_society_education_under_apar~2455.html. 2. Ibid. 3. See, for example: 6-april-1652. 4. See, for example: 5. See, for example: compulsory-white-south-african-men. 6. See, for example: pretoria-high-school-for-girls-afros.


Category: Autumn 2017, Featured Articles

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