It is the seventies, at the height of Apartheid. We’re on a farm in the Western Cape, South Africa. On a typical summer’s day, a grandmother takes her small child outside the farmhouse and tells her she is going to cut her long, thick and plaited hair. Thus, a defining moment in young Myrtell’s life begins. Like so many other women before and since, she tells her story with a peculiar sadness, but also a resignation. This was the time when the pencil test, instituted by the government, was the norm. It determined whether a Coloured person could be classified Black or White. The movie ‘Skin’ depicts this heinous function of the Apartheid regime quite well. A Coloured person is, in South African parlance, one that is mixed race, and in South Africa that can mean having ancestry from Southern Africa and also from many other parts of the world including Malaysia, Indonesia, Ireland and Mauritius. This was enough cause for the Apartheid regime to classify a separate ‘race’ and have structures in place that could determine who would be lucky enough to ‘pass’ as White or be demoted to Black – the pencil test being one of those structures.
It is not like that now, and no-one would dare to admit that they put a pencil in their child’s hair to see if that pencil will fall out – denoting straighter, wispier hair, and therefore Whiteness and acceptability. But there are enough markers of acceptability these days that make it seem as though there is a new, silent form of the pencil test. If I put a pencil in my hair right now, there is no way it will fall out. My curls are so tight, that they will lovingly loop around that pencil and hold on for dear life. In some ways, I find the concept of a pencil test funny, but for many living under Apartheid laws, it was anything but.
Myrtell recalls how painful living on a farm, in the coloured community, and having a short thick Afro was. “I knew it wasn’t a good thing to have an Afro, it made me feel small. There was a lot of stigma as far as kroes hare is concerned, and I couldn’t get used to it.” The term kroes hare, pronounced ‘crooce haa-rah’ was one I had never heard of until I came to South Africa, and more specifically Cape Town, two years ago. Kroes hare does not have a direct translation into English, and many find it difficult to give it a proper English definition. People here speak Afrikaans, and it is not the ‘school’ Afrikaans, but a dialect used specifically by the coloured community in Cape Town. Big, bouncy, and sometimes coarse are the words I have been given by many I ask the definition from. Yet it is this somehow indefinable quality that makes the term kroes hare even more potent.
In the so-called coloured community of Cape Town, the largest community of ‘mixed race’ people in Southern Africa, the desire to have straight and slick hair has not just been a function of the Apartheid era, but it has become almost a cultural trait. Although the town is still divided along racial lines, within the community itself, there continue to be further divisions, and sometimes this is also due to cultural background and religious differences. To hear and see women express the desire for straighter, more European or Asian hair is not uncommon, and certainly not the reserve of this particular part of the world. It is sad, but certainly not uncommon.
The craving to have straight silky hair is one that African women have experienced with the advent of colonialism and slavery. Looking at our cousins across the Atlantic, it also seemed fashionable to have the silkiest, most European-looking tresses. African-Americans always set the trends, but products were not always available here. Now, these products are found everywhere and are usually affordable.
Myrtell, now a hairstylist at a leading salon in Cape Town, concurs. “In the days when my grandmother cut my hair, we didn’t have a lot of options. But now there are so many things women can do to make sure they have good hair. And by good hair I mean healthy hair. I am a stylist, and of course I make a living from using certain products and make more by doing more to the hair, but honestly – some of these things are just damaging.” Myrtell herself keeps her hair blown out, and close cropped. She says her hair never really grew back after it was cut, and, although she has forgiven her grandmother and talked with her about the experience, it was one of the catalysts for her choice of career. In a way, this was the control that she lacked when she was young – when the community would tell her what was acceptable and what was not. In her community, if you don’t have naturally straight hair you’re somewhat of a pariah. This is also a function of the farm areas and townships more than the inner city. “If you have kroes hare, you’re not considered pretty,” Myrtell says, “but I see it’s a bit better in the City, and people are more accepting of kroes or naturally curly hair. The lighter skinned people are fine with being natural it is people my colour, the darker ones, who are not so open to it.”
Myrtell considers the history of her country and seems to make peace with these choices, to a certain extent. “It was probably because of Apartheid. You know, that straight or slick hair and blue eyes with fine features were the ideal. My viewpoints have changed [with time] and people also now accept themselves more.” Apartheid however, only ended about 20 years ago, and there remains vestiges of the old ways in many communities, including Black and Asian ones.
“When a child is born, the first thing people look at is the skin colour,” Myrtell says, “and people rejoice by saying ‘wow, you got a white child!’ if the child is light-skinned. Then they look at the hair. In the first 3 months of a child’s life, you can hear them say ooh let’s hope it doesn’t change, because it’s so straight.”
Skin and hair have been a determinant of who gets ahead for so long, that you can easily see it in the substrata of Coloured society. The wealthier tend to be the lighter-skinned people, with the more European or even Asian features. The poorest sections of society have the coarsest hair, darkest skin and more African features. Indeed, it is hard to find Black or even Coloured people where-ever you go in Cape Town that are not working menial jobs. Everyone stays in their ‘place’- the Blacks in the Black townships, the Whites in the White suburbs, the Coloureds in the Coloured townships. As beautiful as it is, Cape Town has a reputation in South Africa for being the least inclusive and least transformed city in the country.
So what do others say about their experiences elsewhere? Lauren Stoneham recalls her days growing up in Botswana, South Africa’s northern neighbour, and not witnessing or experiencing the kind of stigma that other ‘multi-cultural’ women in South Africa have experienced. “I am perceived as “blessed” as some would put it, with straight hair,” she says, “and growing up my hair was never a concern. It was as I grew older and was in grade school that it was discussed. Some of the girls in school thought my hair was straightened, when it wasn’t.” Being multi-cultural in Botswana is very different from being multi-cultural and ‘mixed race’ in South Africa. Sheryll, a mother of two, agrees. “Growing up in Botswana, my hair was not an issue. Although, my mother often referred to her hair as being ‘kroes’ especially before having it straightened. My cousins also teased each other about the degrees of kroesness or raisins (I had straight hair and the others had the notorious ‘kroes hare’). My own hair has always been somewhat straight and I was often told to thank my father for the blessing of ‘non-kroes hare’. I recently interacted with ‘Black’ South Africans who classify ‘Coloured’ South Africans with the ‘kroesness of the hair’ with a name – and the term ‘ma spikiri’ is given to the kroes hare group. I was quite shocked to hear this, and found that if you’re Coloured with kroes hare somehow you’re lower down on the food chain than a Coloured person with straight hair.”
So, even after all these years, even among Black people, the perceptions persist. Straighter is considered better. Sometimes this is part of an inferiority complex due to historical reasons, other times it’s just about style and choice. The words of another Cape Town stylist give clues. “Women will come here and ask for miracles. They’re looking for bone straight hair and sometimes will do things that harm their hair in that pursuit.” Even though salons know what the harmful things are, they certainly do not tell their clients not to do these things. “I believe it looks better if there’s some kind of chemical in it,” says Claudette of Frank Fowden, a renowned salon in one of the most exclusive malls in the country. “If it’s natural, there should be some sort of styling aid, to maintain it, otherwise it looks dry.”
According to many women, including stylists, anything chemical, like relaxers or dyes that lead to protein damage, are harmful. They all agree that good hair is hair that not only looks good, but is healthy. From the pressure to conform to European standards and ideals to modern day Africa’s current and ongoing love affair with itself and its natural image, the times they really are a-changing. From the days of not loving what was in the mirror, and listening to the stigma – to women walking with pride in the streets of Cape Town with the natural ‘big bouncy’ that they were born with, it has taken time, and is still a work in progress. With flat iron sales having risen exponentially in Cape Town, we understand that the pressure for straight hair is still high. According to stylist Claudette, good hair is virgin hair, but mothers are starting their daughters on chemical treatments very young, even at five years of age. She advises plaiting the child’s hair, and learning to maintain it in its natural state.
Sheryll, mother to a six year old daughter, says: “She’s been teased at school about her hair when it isn’t plaited because she would probably fall into the ‘kroes hare’ category. She had started not wanting to wear her hair naturally or loose, but I’ve tried to reiterate that this is the only hair that she has and that the sooner she learns to love it, the better off she’ll be. We’ve made progress because it’s loose at the moment (due to the school holidays) and she’s doing ok. I’ve also tried to highlight people in the media and friends, with similar hair, and to point out the positive aspects of her hair. A lot of her struggles have been brought on by other kids’ perceptions. Before she was at school or in day care, her hair wasn’t an issue. I want her to be strong enough and clear enough about who she is and not to allow others to define her, whether it’s about her hair, skin colour, personality, likes. She needs to be comfortable in her own skin regardless of what other people think about her. I know that she’s only six but we encourage her and consistently praise her attributes, so that she develops a positive self identity.”
This type of instruction and dedication towards self-love for young girls is admirable, and are key to combating the dedicated ‘anti-you’ beauty machine that is in place worldwide. Yet for generations of women of African descent, there have been serious ramifications when listening to others, rather than our better instincts, tell us of our beauty or desirability. The politicization of our chief physical attributes deserves a closer look, and we need to understand the historical contexts in which our sisters around the world have borne their burdens.