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Hair Politics in South Africa?


While perusing the Internet, I stumbled across “Going natural is a hairy issue” an article by Milisuthando Bongela about natural hair (http://mg.co.za/article/2011-09-30-going-natural-is-a-hairy-issue/). I don’t want to assume, but given the author’s name, some of the comments in the article, and the fact that “za” is a South African Internet code, I believe that Ms. Bongela is South African.

Ms. Bongela details her hair journey: she wore a bald head for years, then tried weaves, and now, seemingly begrudingly, wears her natural hair. In South Africa, some refer to natural hair as “kaffirhare”. In case you don’t know what “kaffir” means, I understand that it means “nigger” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kaffir_(racial_term) and that there are laws in South Africa that prohibit its use. I once read Mark Mathabane’s book Kaffir Boy (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kaffir_Boy) and learned a lot more about the term and the historical context that explains it.
Perhaps it is the use of the term “kaffir” that strikes such a discordant note with me, particularly because Ms. Bongela states that it is WITHIN THE BLACK COMMUNITIES that “chemical-free kinky hair” is referred to as kaffirhare. Plus, Ms. Bongela claims that it is not common for women to wear their natural hair, especially in urban cities like Jo’Burg because hair is used to convey status (translation: kinky hair = lower status).
Now, I don’t know what your stance is on the use of the word nigger. I personally tend not to use it, though I have family members who use it like a badge of honor. However, I find it sad that people are referring to their own hair in such a derogatory way. It pains me. I find it ironic that a country on the continent that is the cradle of civilization would have such negative attitude toward Black hair in its natural state.
I am now beginning to wonder if this negative context has anything to do with the fact that many of my African sisters that I’ve seen, at least in D.C., NY and Boston, seem to wear wigs, extensions, or relaxed hair almost exclusively. When I’ve inquired about this, my African sisters have responded that they are resistant to wearing their natural hair; it is simply not acceptable or attractive in their communities. I know that some African women wear their natural hair; however, they seem to be a minority. Perhaps I am overgeneralizing? Please, help me understand. What, if anything, do you think is going on? Is this more true for younger or older women?
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  • Anonymous

    Being African when I was growing up the more white u were the more beautiful u were perceived be it a light complexion, speaking English without a local heavy accent or straight hair. Thus the weaves and hair extensions are not only a source of beauty but a symbol of success and wealth as not everyone can afford good quality hair extensions. It takes a long time for people to not think like this, unfortunately when they realise this many have severely damaged hairlines after years of sew-ins etc.

  • topie

    Hi Anonymous, thanks so much for your insightful comments. I can so relate to this. It's funny, I have a naive expectation that African people are MORE confident in their Africanness than African-American people. Your comments show that that may not be accurate. I have a favor to ask: will you please pass along the blog to other African women and men you know? I really want to expand the network of people who are discussing this topic. Plus, I want to get as much input and perspectives as possible. Thank you so much for taking the time to read my blog and to comment. I appreciate it! 🙂 Tina

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