Students at Pretoria High School for Girls in South Africa protested after black students were told to "fix" their hair. Here's what happened. (Victoria Walker/The Washington Post)

In recent years, staff members at the prestigious Pretoria High School for Girls in South Africa’s administrative capital had taken to telling black students to “fix” their hair, according to some current and former pupils. Exactly what “fix” meant depended on who was issuing the order, the young women said: Some were told to use chemical straighteners, while others got a reminder about the school rule limiting cornrows, dreadlocks and braids to a centimeter or less in diameter.

To many of them, nothing needed fixing in the first place.

Last month, propelled by the long-simmering belief that such criticisms were discriminatory, a group of current students took action. Protests were staged on the leafy, gated campus over the hair fracas and other incidents reported at the school, including teachers allegedly discouraging students from speaking African languages.

Images of the demonstrations went viral, sparking fresh concerns over lingering discrimination in South Africa’s classrooms and beyond. As the hashtag #StopRacismAtPretoriaGirlsHigh circulated on social media, reports of a hair crackdown at another school surfaced, this one involving a student in the city of Port Elizabeth who said she was warned she might not be able to sit for exams because of her Afro.

Outrage over the Pretoria girls’ claims is part of a broader debate that has gained traction in South Africa in the past year. The staff members’ alleged behavior capped a string of racially charged incidents — including a white woman calling black beachgoers “monkeys” in a Facebook post — that have raised hard questions about the pace of change in race-related policies and attitudes here more than 20 years after apartheid ended.

After the protests, thousands of people signed an online petition supporting the students, leading to a suspension of the school’s hair regulations. (Twitter)

“They go around posting signs about the ethos of equality for all the girls at the school, but that is not true,” said one 15-year-old student. “It feels like they don’t want to accept the fact that we’re African.”

“It’s degrading,” said a classmate, also 15, noting that the students’ protests were about much more than rules on hair. “If we don’t stick up for ourselves, no one’s going to.”

Both students spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals from teachers.

After thousands signed an online petition supporting the Pretoria students, the head of Gauteng province’s education department met with students, parents and staff at the school this week to hear the students’ claims. The department later ordered the code of conduct clause dealing with hairstyles to be suspended.

The code includes a long list of rules governing students’ general appearance. Its hairstyle guidelines had stipulated that all hair must be brushed, tied back in a neat ponytail if long enough, and that “cornrows, natural dreadlocks, and singles/braids . . . are allowed, provided they are a maximum of 10mm in diameter.”

The provincial education department also ordered an inquiry into the students’ claims of racial discrimination and said “the mocking of learners’ hairstyles” and “the mocking of African learners’ usage of their mother tongue” must stop.

A girl protesting the hairstyle code at Pretoria High School for Girls last month is shown in this photo posted on Twitter, one of many that went viral on the social media site after black students claimed the rule constituted racial discrimination. (Twitter)

Some see the students’ allegations as a depressing sign that the promises of the Rainbow Nation — a term coined by Archbishop Desmond Tutu that came to encapsulate the hopes of a post-apartheid South Africa — are going unfulfilled for its youngest citizens.

“It’s not about just schools,” said Yvette Raphael, a human rights advocate for young women and girls who attended one of the protests. “The Rainbow Nation is not a true thing. It’s not reality. . . . Behind closed doors, some of things of pre-1994 are still happening.”

Pretoria High School for Girls, founded in 1902, was an all-white school under apartheid, despite its founding headmistress’s vision of it as a place where “girls of different races and different denominations might meet in that commonwealth of letters.” The school admitted its “first black, non-diplomatic pupils” in 1991, according to its website.

The school, which said it could not speak to the media when contacted for comment, has said in a statement that it will work closely with the government to “resolve the issues which were raised” in this week’s meeting.

Nomfundo Parkies, whose daughter is among the school’s black students, said she appreciates the institution’s disciplined environment but that its rules “should be considerate.”

“There’s a serious need for an attitude change,” she said as she waited to pick her daughter up after classes. “We see it everywhere. It’s not surprising that it’s coming out here.”

South African Basic Education Minister Angie Motshekga said she didn’t consider anything in the school’s code controversial. “Those are standard rules that you find in most codes of conduct,” she told the public broadcaster SABC.

“They look innocent,” she said about the rules. “It’s perhaps in the implementation where difficulties came.”

Other government officials, however, have been less equivocal in their concern.

“Schools should not be used as a platform to discourage students from embracing their African Identity. #StopRacismAtPretoriaGirlsHigh,” Arts and Culture Minister Nathi Mthethwa tweeted Monday.

He also tweeted: “To assert our language & hair, is to assert one’s cultural belonging. Schools must embrace cultural diversity #StopRacismAtPretoriaGirlsHigh.”

The South African Institute of Race Relations welcomed the government’s decision to investigate students’ claims.

The allegations “shouldn’t be taken lightly,” said Salaminah Kelebogile Leepile, a spokeswoman for the think tank, adding, “We need sufficient information from all parties.”

The widespread attention that the Pretoria events have generated may prompt other schools to take a closer look at what is happening in their own classrooms, according to Melissa Steyn, chair in Critical Diversity Studies at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg.

“People become complacent with things as they are, until there is a sense of urgency,” she said. “A lot of schools are doing some very quick footwork to fix up their own policies.”

In Johannesburg, Parktown High School for Girls said this week it has decided to amend its rules to ensure that all girls “attend school feeling comfortable with what they consider to be their natural hair.”

“We do not have a problem with hairstyles,” Anthea Cereseto, the school’s headmistress, said in an email. “We believe the hair issue is the superficial manifestation of something deeper in the country which needs to be dealt with.”