Pupils speak out against school’s ‘rules’

Pupils at Fairbairn College in Goodwood have accused the school of racism and “ignoring the voices of learners”.

A planned protest on Wednesday September 7 was called off at the last minute because the pupils did not have the required gatherings permit.

In a memorandum shared on the Disrupting Whiteness: UCT Facebook page last week, Fairbairn College pupils pledged solidarity with their counterparts at Pretoria and Sans Souci Girls’ high schools, where protests about racist practices, especially relating to black pupils’ hairstyles, erupted over the past three weeks.

They said these protests had made them aware that “we are not alone”.

“There are many other former Model C schools that, like ours, are structurally racist and ignore the voices of learners,” the memorandum reads.

They have demanded an apology from principal Bernie Marchand and the school governing body (SGB) for imposing what they call a “hair dompas” which girls with braids must have with them.

This apology relates to an incident in late April, or early May, when, they say, coloured and black girls were taken to an assembly where a “hair dompas” was issued by a staff member they accused of being insulting.

“We were told that whenever ‘you girls’ (black girls) go to weddings, ‘you come back looking like the bride with a mop of hair’.

“We felt degraded, embarrassed and excluded.(The staff member) insulted our culture and our appearance. Mops are dirty, damaged and unhygienic. The girls and our parents were psychologically bullied into taking out our braids.

“The conditions for having braids were obviously made without having consulted anyone who might know anything about black and coloured girls’ hair, ie black and coloured women. It was not insensitive – it was racist,” the pupils said.

The Fairbairn pupils want the school’s code of conduct to be changed.

Schools have been instructed to review their codes of conduct by Education MEC Debbie Schäfer.

Ms Schäfer said the codes had to be in line with the values of the constitution and representative of the school community.

“It is important that all schools ensure that their codes of conduct represent the inclusive society in which we live and are in line with the values of our constitution.

“Discipline and authority is required at all schools. However, it is important that there is a healthy balance between school discipline and individual rights,” she said.

The memorandum also accuses the school of stifling the voices of pupils, saying they have no real representation, and the agendas for the Representative Council of Learners (RCL) are “set by a staff member”.

They want the RCL to have voting rights at the SGB level.

“When issues are raised, they are very quickly dismissed, and so the RCL is not able to represent the issues of all learners,” they said.

Some of the issues they want to talk about are girls not being allowed to wear pants, or boys being given detention for taking their blazers off in summer.

“Or being allowed to have soccer at Fairbairn College as a sport, or even having soccer balls allowed on school outings or at break.

“It is a rule at Fairbairn that only rugby balls are allowed.”

The memorandum also accuses a teacher of “daily bullying” and pupils who reported this had been “intimidated into silence”.

Yet another teacher “imposes spontaneous group prayers on his class, despite the fact that Fairbairn College is over 30 percent Muslim”.

Furthermore, “We also can’t raise the fact that when you sing hymns in assemblies and you don’t sing it loud enough, you are made to sing it over and over again.”

Outside the school on Wednesday, two pupils Northern News spoke to confirmed their unhappiness with the alleged goings-on there. One, a matric pupil, said the planned protest was aborted because they had no permit and the school “called the cops on them”.

A boy told Northern News his unhappiness stemmed from other issues, such as inequality between different religions at Fairbairn. He described Mr Marchand’s attitude as “aggressive”.

In a Facebook reply to the post by Disrupting Whiteness: UCT, a man (Brandon Newman), wrote: “Shame on you Marchand….typical army mentality that you are so used too.”

Northern News asked Mr Marchand for comment on the memorandum. An email from his secretary on Friday September 9, referred us to Western Cape Education Department spokespersons, Paddy Atwell and Jessica Shelver.

Ms Shelver said the department knew about the pupils’ grievances. Senior management of the district had met with some members of Fairbairn’s RCL executive, and an agreement had been reached, she said.

In terms of the agreement, the WCED had facilitated “a conversation” with all RCL members and the school management team on Friday September 9.

The RCL had committed to sitting around the table to find solutions to the challenges they were experiencing at the school; no student protest would take place until the parties had met; and pupils had agreed that they were keen to restore the name of their school and were proud to be associated with Fairbairn College.