Hands Off Our Hair - Citizen Research Centre
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Hands Off Our Hair


On Saturday, 27 August, high school students from Pretoria Girls held a peaceful protest during the school’s annual Spring Fair. The march was organised by some of the grade 8 students but was joined by Tuks students, old-girls from Pretoria Girls High and members of the public. In response, the school called on armed police, private security and a K9 unit – which saw the situation receive considerable traditional media and social media attention.

We analysed all South African social media from Friday 26 August to Monday 29 August and found 71,048 pieces of content related to the StopRacismAtPretoriaGirlsHigh issue – more than 99% of which were tweets.

The engagement was at it’s lowest on the day of the protest with only 94 tweets, compared to 185 the day before. The issue quickly grew and the volumes increased on Sunday to 16,673 and again on Monday with 54,096.

The sentiment on Friday was mostly neutral, with only 16% being expressly positive and 27% negative. By Monday 29 August, the sentiment had shifted quite significantly to 22% positive and 44% negative.


The most popular hashtag over the 4 day period was #StopRacismAtPretoriaGirlsHigh with more that 65,000 mentions. #ZulaikhaPatel – the girl who became the icon of the day, standing with crossed fists in the air – was mentioned more than 650 times.This would likely have been higher if she was not a minor – many individuals did not name her for fear of backlash against her.


The gender split in the conversation is – perhaps surprisingly – very balanced.

There was very little discernable difference topics of discussion and the content shared by men and women.

Topics from Female Content

Topics from Male Content

This issue, although focused on girls (and their hair) seems to be equally understood and important to both sexes


Gauteng residents were by far the most active with 69.33% of all conversation about the protest originated from that province. Western Cape comes in second with only 11.77%

Only 22.24% came from Pretoria itself – Johannesburg posted 45.8% of the content.

Benoni makes the top 10 list, coming in at number 7 with 2.22%.

Top contributors (cities & towns)

City or Town % of Total Mentions Number of Mentions
Johannesburg 45.80% 20985
Pretoria 22.24% 10192
Cape Town 11.23% 5146
Durban 5.20% 2383
Port Elizabeth 3.09% 1416
Bloemfontein 2.25% 1033
Benoni 2.22% 1019
Grahamstown 1.10% 506
Polokwane 1.07% 490
East London 0.82% 377
Vereeniging 0.81% 370
Pietermaritzburg 0.63% 288

Mentions per Province

Province % of Total Mentions Number of Mentions
Gauteng 69.33% 34447
Western Cape 11.77% 5848
KwaZulu-Natal 6.14% 3052
Eastern Cape 5.59% 2775
Free State 2.28% 1134
Mpumalanga 1.50% 743
Limpopo 1.49% 738
North West 1.40% 698
Northern Cape 0.50% 247


Joy and Disgust were the two main emotions conveyed on Friday 26th and Saturday 27th. Anger and Sadness play a minor role on Friday but by Saturday Joy is the most prevalent emotion – people were inspired and impressed by the actions of these youths.

Emotion – 26th August


Emotion – 27th August

This inspiration was however trumped in the following two days – 28 and 29 August – by disgust, anger, sadness and fear.

Although people were still discussing the bravery and power of the individuals involved, the conversation moved to the bigger issue of the pervasiveness of racism (subconscious, institutionalised or outright) in our schooling system.

Emotion – 28th August

Emotion – 29th August


We saw a 79% drop off in conversation volume from the 30th to the 31st of August with only 6,854 posts in total on the topic – 5,663 of which were posted on Tuesday the 30th.

The gender split in this conversation is even more equally distributed between the sexes with 51% of the conversation being driven by women.


This rapid decline in conversation is typical of social media – the world moves fast and there is a lot to be outraged about. This, however, does not necessarily spell the end of the saga.

Social media needs to act as the catalyst to sustained action.

Ministers and politicians have weighed in on the issue. Learners around the country have displayed their solidarity and wish to be included in the discussion.


On face value, this protest was about dress codes and hair styles. Scratch the surface and it is clear that the politics of hair are the politics of race.

The deeper issue here lies with old institutions that are loathe to change outdated policies – policies that do not reflect the reality of our multicultural society.

Acknowledging difference, however minor, is essential to a functioning, inclusive democracy.

These girls are not asking to be above the rules, they are not protesting for their right to wear their hair the way they want, they are not asking to be allowed to be “untidy”. They are asking for recognition of the difference between black African hair and white African hair and for school policies that reflect that.


What this data really shows is the power of protest and the ability of South Africans to recognise the deeper issues. We saw emotions expressed on social media move from inspiration to anger, as the arena of protest broadened.

Very quickly, it became about the racism of privilege and entitlement – structural and institutionalised racism. It also became about pride, about African pride – pride in our hair, pride in our languages, pride in ourselves.

And so the actions of a few brave schoolgirls have opened up crucial debates about who we are as Africans. We salute them!


The Citizen Research Centre is an organisation dedicated to investigating our societies and providing accurate, meaningful data that can be used to effect change – through knowledge, understanding of ourselves and ‘the other’ and through policy.

We describe what we do as social research. This is research done in order to improve and expand on our knowledge of the world by providing decision makers in social policy and intervention projects with the best data possible.

We run primary face-to-face research – both quantitative and qualitative – in 54 countries in Africa and the Middle East. Click here for a list of countries in which we run face-to-face research.

We run analytic research on social media globally through our partnership with Crimson Hexagon, arguably the best social media analysis platform in the world. This and other reports are generated through mining and reporting on our social media data base, which currently holds almost 1 trillion pieces of social media data.

We are committed to providing research on Citizens, and also research for Citizens – that reflect their own views back to them through social media analytics. The nature of social media analysis is such that any topic can be rigorously explored. If you would like to purchase in depth reporting on this or any other topic, please contact us

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