Zandile never forgets the day her overwhelmingly white Christian high school asked her to leave classes.
The offense of the 14-year-old from the Zulu tribe was donning the “isiphandla,” a traditional bracelet made out of goatskin and worn by the majority of 10 million Zulu ethnic people of South Africa.
Isiphandla is a sacred traditional bracelet in Zulu ethnic belief. One wears it soon after a traditional ceremony until it wastes itself with time.
“I felt damaged in spirit, not fully accepted as human when a white headteacher demanded that I loosen my traditional African wristband off, and throw it away into ashes,” said Zandile, who spoke to Baptist News Global via her parents.
With the permission of her parents, she chose to change her name and surname for this article for two reasons: The family has sued the Christian school, and because she is still underage and therefore her details cannot be publicly named in terms of South Africa’s child-protection laws.
The Zulus, living along South Africa’s marvelous Indian Ocean coastline, are the biggest Black ethnic group in the country of roughly 60 million inhabitants.
Among the Zulus, ancestor belief and veneration are common faith practices, although outwardly most Zulus mix in the home-grown Shembe Christian faith, a diluted version of Pentecostalism that also dabbles in African ancestor veneration.
“Among the Zulu, the goatskin bracelet is a fiercely strong marker of cultural, nationalist identity that is thought to be a connection to guardian ancestor spirits,” said South African poet Kudakwashe Magezi. “Its importance can be likened to the Jewish Kippa (yarmlke) brimless cap for people of Hebrew origin.”
As a rite of passage, every Zulu child must wear the bracelet on turning age 2 until it wears off naturally.
As a rite of passage, every Zulu child must wear the bracelet upon turning age 2 until it wears off naturally, and then continue the practice afresh on reaching age 55, Magezi explained.
But, as ongoing court litigations across South Africa prove, some private Christian schools in South Africa, which are predominantly white and high-status, throw out Black Zulu students who come to classes wearing the isiphandla goatskin bracelet.
For those private Christian colleges, the bracelets signify a connection to “evil, defiling, Black ancestral spirits,” Magezi said.
The legacy of 100 years of right-wing Dutch-European Christian colonialism has left South Africa with the highest number of private Christian faith-based high schools and colleges in the Southern African region.
“Most of these private Christian schools in South Africa are wealthy, upper-class, dominated by white students, white boarding-masters, white teachers, and principals. For Blacks wanting a reprieve from South Africa’s disastrous non-faith public schools, entry into Christian colleges often involves sacrificing one’s beliefs and toeing the line,” said Markwell Mhondera, a public school teacher in Mpumalanga, one of the South African provinces with the highest number of white-led Euro-centric Christian private colleges.
It is in these historically wealthy, private Christian schools, where isiphandla is resented.
“The goatskin wristband bans in Christian private colleges are not an isolated event at all in South Africa,” Magezi said. “They fit into a pattern of deep, crude, racist discrimination of ethnic Black bodies and attire/fashion in South Africa.”
“They fit into a pattern of deep, crude, racist discrimination of ethnic Black bodies and attire/fashion in South Africa.”
In 2016, a global furor centered South Africa into the global spotlight. Then, a largely upper-class white high school for girls in the colonial-era capital city of Pretoria tried to throttle attendance by Black female pupils who maintain long, dark-black hair and braids. The prominent largely white high school allegedly ordered Black female students to chemically straighten their dark Afro hair and not wear “dirty Afros.”
The hostility to African faith ornaments and fashion in South Africa also extends to retail and corporate business spaces. For instance, Woolworth, a multinational supermarket, (“the Walmart of South Africa”), got into hot soup in 2020 for allegedly firing a Black African employee who wore the isiphandla wristband.
Critics say this is hardly a surprise because 28 years after the demise of racist Euro-centric Apartheid colonialism, 66% of top managers in South Africa are white; 77% of the equity in South Africa’s stocks exchanges is owned by whites and a whopping 80% of the country’s land is held by white family trustees and corporations.
“It’s still the overwhelmingly white South African business owners that determine if ritualistic African wristbands can be worn by Black employees or not,” Magezi explained.
The irony, critics say, is that white South African students attending the same Christian colleges are allowed to join classes while wearing European-style bracelets, rosaries and jewelry.
“Whites can get a free pass in wearing Jewish Kippas; or Catholic rosaries to school or work in South Africa,” argued Tendai Muchatuta, a Black pastor and leader of the staunchly Africanist independent All Nations Church in Johannesburg, the commercial capital of South Africa.
“Whites can get a free pass in wearing Jewish Kippas; or Catholic rosaries to school or work in South Africa.”
Pastor Muchatuta rebukes what he calls the bigoted nature of white-dominant Christian schools that demean African students from wearing traditional ritual ornaments like the goatskin wristband.
“They are bigoted because, two decades after the end of racist Apartheid colonialism, the continuing (of) racist mistrust of Black South Africans ranges from fearing Black South African faiths, apparel and even Black South African hair,” he said.
Critics say these bans of Black traditional ritualistic attire in South Africa’s white Christian schools and some corporate offices could be unconstitutional. Currently, the bans of Black South Africans from upper-class Christian colleges for wearing traditional wristbands has made its way to South Africa’s Equality Court.
“Here’s a prima-facie case of silly discrimination based on racist, colonially tainted religious beliefs. Those Christian schools could face stiff anti-bigotry rulings and financial penalties,” said Stanely Samodza, a South African attorney not representing any of the offended Black students and their families.
Ray Mwareya is a freelance journalist who is published in Al Jazeera and Newsweek. Ashley Simango is a freelance reporter and student with work in published in the New Arab.