Ius Gentium

University of Baltimore School of Law's Center for International and Comparative Law Fellows discuss international and comparative legal issues


My Hair Is Beautiful Too: The Plight of the Black Girls in South Africa and the US

J. Michal Forbes

Both the US and South Africa are parties to the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (ICERD), which aims to eliminate racial discrimination and promote understanding amongst all races.[i] In fact, both countries have representatives on the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, which is tasked with implementing the ICERD and meets twice a year to work on resolving international issues of discrimination. One issue that has emerged recently that could have wider implications for both state parties is hair style enforcement in public schools.

In the last 6 weeks there have been controversies in the US and in South Africa regarding school policies discriminating against hairstyles worn by black students. School administrations came under scrutiny for both blatant and subtle policies that did not accommodate for reasonable ethnic and cultural practices.

In Pretoria, South Africa, the students at the Pretoria High School for Girls (“PHSG”) alleged that school officials were telling them to straighten their hair. This news took Twitter by storm and the hashtag #StopRacismAtPetoriaGirlsHigh nearly broke the Internet. An online petition started, which now has over 32,000 signatures, claims that the school’s code of conduct discriminates against Black and Muslim girls, the students are banned from speaking in African languages (such as Xhosa, Sotho, Zulu and Venda) at school, and students are prohibited from socializing with one another.

On its face, the school’s policy is not blatantly discriminatory. However, it does imply that African hair in its natural state is “messy.[ii]”  The school’s code of conduct policy states that cornrows and braids were allowed be only a maximum of 10 millimeter in diameter, go straight back, and have no beads or decorations. Hairstyles should be conservative and neat and students should refrain from any kind of eccentric fashion styles. However, what constitutes eccentric? What constitutes a style that is fashionable?


Looking closely at the language in the school’s policy, many popular styles that black teenager girls would wear would be deemed inappropriate under the policy. Typically black teenagers, in both the US and South Africa wear extensions, beads, Afros or even patterned cornrows in their hair. Under the policy, all of those hairstyles are prohibited.

As a result of international media attention to these issues, PHSG stated that they plan on revising the Code of Conduct and would look for input from all of the students, regardless of ethnicity, and their parents.[iii]  PHSG also reported that they needed to “end all hostilities” and resume classes as normal.

This situation isn’t too far removed from instances in the United States. This past July, Butler Traditional High School in Louisville, Kentucky decided “dreadlocks, braids, twists, and “cornrolls” (they likely meant cornrows) are “extreme and distracting and not allowed to be worn by any of its students.[iv] Essentially, the school banned hairstyles primarily worn by the school’s black population. This wording went unchallenged until the sole black female in the Kentucky State House took to Twitter to display her disgust and disappointment.


A month later, the school suspended the policy and updated it to better reflect its student population. However, the original policy and the outrage it caused gained little to no media coverage. In fact, most of the time when black students in the US face discrimination in schools, there is no international media coverage.[v]

The blatant ban against black hairstyles in Kentucky and the implied ban against black hairstyles in South Africa are similar. Yet, why does the incident in South Africa receive significantly more coverage and press? News outlets such as NPR, CNN and the Washington Post all covered the issue. But, the incident in Kentucky was covered only by local newspapers and Essence Magazine.

Why is this a bigger deal in South Africa? Perhaps it is that the US is seen worldwide as a melting pot where all racial groups are treated equally.  South Africa is still a fairly new democracy, with apartheid ending less than 25 years ago. It may also be that in South Africa, black Africans make up 76% of the population versus, in America, blacks make up a mere 12.3% of the population.[vi]

When the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination meets again in May 2017, it will be interesting to see if the banning of black hairstyles is discussed. Considering that the U.S. Court of Appeals recently ruled that it is legal for businesses to discriminate against employees with dreadlocks, the world should be paying attention to the work of the Committee next year and any potentially impacts this judicial decision could have.[vii] If this issue is not resolved across the globe, black hair will continue to be seen as unruly, untamed and naturally untidy, instead of as BEAUTIFUL.

J. Michal Forbes is a proud native of Prince George’s County, Maryland, Ms. Forbes has a fiery passion for international law, travel and frozen yogurt. After receiving her B.A. in Political Science from the University of Maryland, Baltimore she taught ESOL in the Washington, D.C. Metropolitan area before joining the US Peace Corps in 2011. Ms. Forbes served in the Peace Corps in Ukraine from 2011 to 2013, in a small town between the Red Sea and the Black Sea in Crimea. Fluent in Russian, Ms. Forbes soon caught the travel bug and traveled/worked extensively throughout Eastern Europe during her 27 month commitment. Currently a 3L, Ms. Forbes is a member of the International Law Society, Immigration Law Society, Black Law Student Association and the Women Lawyers as Leaders Initiative. She has worked for Maryland Legal Aid and the NAACP’s Office of the Attorney General. She was recently awarded the honor of being named Article Editor with the University of Baltimore Law Forum, a scholarly legal journal focused on rising issues in Maryland. It is her dream to work for the U.S. government assisting with asylum seekers and refugee. 

In her free time, Ms. Forbes enjoys eating frozen yogurt with her husband and learning Arabic.

[i] Parties to the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination“. United Nations Treaty Collection.

[ii] S Africa: Black students protest ‘racist’ hair ruleshttp://www.aljazeera.com/news/2016/08/africa-black-students-protest-racist-hair-rules-160829083905084.html.

[iii] The Way Forward Letter, http://www.phsg.org.za/uploads/cms/files/way_forward_letter.pdf.

[iv] Kentucky High School’s Dress Code ‘Stinks of Racism,’ Bans Dreadlocks, Cornrows And Braids, http://www.essence.com/2016/07/28/kentucky-high-school-bans-natural-hairstyles-racism.

[v] See 6 Times Black Kids Faced Discrimination in School, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/6-times-black-kids-faced-discrimination-in-school_us_562f882fe4b06317990f5a4b.

[vi] See Mid-year population estimates available at http://www.statssa.gov.za/publications/P0302/P03022013.pdf; Census: White majority in U.S. gone by 2043, http://usnews.nbcnews.com/_news/2013/06/13/18934111-census-white-majority-in-us-gone-by-2043.

[vii] Federal Court Rules It Legal to Discriminate Against Employees With Dreadlocks, http://www.cosmopolitan.com/style-beauty/beauty/a3616858/dreadlocks-discrimination-case/.

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Reoccurring Xenophobic Attacks Cause Turmoil in South Africa

Suzanne De Deyne

At a recent gathering, Zulu King Goodwill Swelithini described immigrants “as lice that must be removed”[1] and urged foreigners to “pack their bags and go” because they are taking jobs away from natural-born South African citizens.[2]  Although kings are mostly ceremonial figures in South Africa, they are influential in their communities. In this instance, Zulu King Goodwill’s statements sparked violent xenophobic acts against immigrants in Durban, a port city in South Africa.[3] The violence has since spread to other major cities in South Africa, most notably the commercial city of Johannesburg.  Nearby African nations have also condemned these recent xenophobic attacks and as a precaution have evacuated their citizens from South Africa.[4]  This blog post seeks to provide an overview of the recent xenophobic attacks and develop an understanding of why these xenophobic attacks keep happening in South Africa.

At present, South Africa has about two million documented and undocumented immigrants.[5]  Many come to South Africa, also known as the “rainbow nation,” for a better life and hope to contribute to the nation’s economy by bringing skills that are in demand. Unfortunately, South Africans perceive these immigrants as criminals; even President Jacob Zuma’s eldest son, Edward, said of foreigners that, “we are sitting on a ticking time-bomb of them taking over the country.”[6]  President Zuma responded with an emotionless plea by stating, “it is misleading and wrong to label or regard all foreign nationals as being involved in crime in the country.”[7]

The recent violent xenophobic attacks, mainly arising in poor and marginalized areas, have killed at least seven people and have left roughly 5,000 people homeless.[8]  This is not the first time South Africa has dealt with xenophobic attacks and many activists say progress, however incremental, is being made.  This time a round, South Africa deployed its army to hostile areas to prevent further attacks against foreigners[9] and police were commended for their vigorous response to the violence.[10]  Additionally, in Johannesburg a hotline for victims to report xenophobic attacks was launched to help members of vulnerable communities come forward and report problems to the police.[11]  To increase international awareness of these human rights violations, some South Africans have taken to social media, with the hash-tag “WeAreAfrica,” and have held protests against xenophobia and violence in the streets of South Africa.[12]

A notable difference between the recent xenophobic attacks in comparison to those that occurred in previous years is the increase of commitment to prosecute perpetrators.[13]  It is absolutely imperative that perpetrators be prosecuted for their actions to deter others from committing the human right violations associated with xenophobic attacks – including but not limited to looting foreign owned businesses, rape, murder, robbery, and theft.[14]  Criminal accountability is just one necessary tactic to mitigate xenophobic attacks in South Africa.  For example, Peace Action, a non-governmental organization was created to monitor and raise awareness on this issue within local communities and law enforcement.[15]  Peace Action places workers where foreigners are most vulnerable, including the country’s refugee centers, where poor migrants are often denied services and bullied for bribes as well as hospitals, which recently began illegally demanding cash payments in advance from foreign patients.[16]

Despite the improvement in the accountability process for those who commit xenophobic attacks or an increase in resources for those affected by xenophobic attacks, the fundamental question revolving around these attacks remains – why do they keep happening?  The answer is straightforward – inequality.  Today, South Africa remains one of the “most unequal societies on the planet.”[17]  On April 27, 1994 South Africa held its first post apartheid elections; and for many South Africans, the proximity of the recent attacks to this historic anniversary is a harsh reminder of the failures of the ruling African National Congress (ANC) to carry out Nelson Mandela’s promise of a “better life for all.”[18]  Vast unemployment, lack of affordable housing, inability to deliver basic services, like water and electricity, and a growing gap between rich and poor have left most South Africans without a safety net.[19]  The government must step in and address inequality to alleviate South African’s from these inhumane xenophobic attacks.  Perhaps the reason why these attacks keep occurring is because it is harder to hold elected officials accountable than to place the blame on foreigners.  Foreigners are an easy scapegoat but they should not suffer for the government’s lack of success in diverting inequality and establishing a prosperous economy.  If anything, locals and immigrants should work hand in hand to continue the hope that the nickname “rainbow nation” connotes. “Xenophobia starts in people’s minds…and it grows with a lack of education and a lack of understanding,” stated Trish Erasmus, Director of the Refugee-and-Migrants Program at the nonprofit Lawyers for Human Rights.[20]  Effective criminal prosecution and practical grassroots efforts are essential to foster a greater dialogue between immigrants and South Africans to change the perception of foreigners.  The government must take responsibility and squash the xenophobic attitude throughout the entire country by addressing the bigger issue: inequality.

Suzanne De Deyne is a second year student at the University of Baltimore School of Law (candidate for J.D., May 2016) concentrating in International Law. Suzanne graduated cum laude from the University of Massachusetts-Amherst with a Bachelor of Arts in Political Science and a minor in Economics. She also received a Honor’s International Relations Certificate from Mount Holyoke College.

Currently, Suzanne is a staff editor on the Journal of International Law and represents the International Law Society as the Alumni Relations Director. As a CICL Fellow, Suzanne conducts legal research for International Rights Advocates on human rights and corporate accountability. She is also a member of Phi Alpha Delta and the Women’s Bar Association. This summer she will be a legal intern at Gibson, Dunn, & Crutcher in the firm’s Brussels office, which is focused on Competition Law practice in Europe.


[1] Interview by Renee Montagne with Ofeibea Quist-Arcton, Int’l Correspondent, NPR News, (Apr. 21, 2015) [hereinafter Interview], available at http://www.npr.org/2015/04/21/401167136/immigrants-flee-south-africa-after-xenophobic-attacks. King Zwelithini leads about nine million Zulus, representing the single biggest ethnic group in South Africa. Id.

[2] Faith Karimi, What’s Behind Xenophobic Attacks in South Africa?, CNN (Apr. 19, 2015), http://www.cnn.com/2015/04/18/africa/south-africa-xenophobia-explainer/. According to the UN, the attacks began in March 2015 after a labor dispute between citizens and foreign workers. Id.

[3] Karimi, supra note 2. Zulu King Zwelithini has since denied making this comment and stated journalists misquoted him. Id.

[4] Karimi, supra note 2.

[5] Karimi, supra note 2. Zimbabweans make up the largest group of immigrants in South Africa. Id.

[6] Blood at the End of the Rainbow, Economist (Apr. 25, 2015), http://www.economist.com/news/middle-east-and-africa/21649429-south-africas-poor-are-turning-those-even-more-downtrodden-blood-end-rainbow.

[7] Karimi, supra note 2.

[8] South Africa Army to Tackle Xenophobic Attacks, BBC (Apr. 21, 2015), http://www.bbc.com/news/world-africa-32396532.

[9] South Africa Army to Tackle Xenophobic Attacks, supra note 9.

[10] Christopher Vourlias, After Xenophobic Attacks, South African Gov’t Blasted for Tardy Response, Aljazeera America (Apr. 25, 2015), http://america.aljazeera.com/articles/2015/4/25/after-xenophobic-attacks-s-african-government-blasted-for-tardy-response.html.

[11] Vourlias, supra note 10.

[12] Karimi, supra note 2.

[13] Vourlias, supra note 10.

[14] Karimi, supra note 2.

[15] Vourlias, supra note 10.

[16] Id.

[17] Id.

[18] Id.

[19] Id.

[20] Id.