Get Up, Stand Up, Fight like Lerato

Doron Isaacs
Advocate Suzanna Harvey and Lerato Radebe outside the Free State High Court, 17 May 2013.
Doron Isaacs

On Friday Judge Phalatsi ordered that 13-year old Lerato Radebe be immediately readmitted to her school in Welkom. Every morning since 26 February Lerato was removed from her classroom and marched to the staff-room where she was made to spend the school day sitting idly. This was done because Lerato, whose family is Rastafarian, wears dreadlocks in her hair.

When I heard that Lerato had won her case I was overjoyed, and not only for Lerato or the Equal Education Law Centre. I was happier on a deeper level, because I felt that justice had been done. Some might think this a strange reaction for an atheist. But is it?

Before grappling with that let me tell you about Lerato’s father. Lehlohonolo Radebe is unemployed and lives in Thandani Informal Settlement in Thabong, Welkom. He has spent almost half a year fighting to have Lerato allowed back into her classroom. The school, assisted by the province, has tried everything to break his spirit. On the eve of the case, in an Orwellian farce, the MEC for Education in the Free State, Tate Makgoe, publicly threatened to arrest Lerato’s father on the basis that Lerato had not been attending school!

Since January Mr Radebe had written to or met with the principal, the school governing body, the MEC, two Chief Directors, the District Director, and various officials of the national department. He heard about Equal Education through a member of the church (or ‘mansion’) of which he, his wife Selloanne and their four children are members, the Rastafari House of Nyahbinghi.

In his affidavit Mr Radebe cites the religious basis for dreadlocks from the Bible. Numbers 6:5 reads: “All the days of his vow of separation, no razor shall touch his head. Until the time is completed for which he separates himself to the Lord, he shall be holy. He shall let the locks of hair of his head grow long.” As a Jewish person I found it poignant to read this because it reminded me of payot, the similar custom of Haredi and Hasidic Jews, where men let their side-curls grow. 1

Reading the chain of events in this case I got the strong impression that Lerato was being discriminated against not simply for her dreadlocks, but because she was different. “My school mates agree with me that I should not have to cut my dreadlocks,” Lerato told the court. Her father explains: “Many girls at the school have synthetic extensions, or braids … other girls have chemically straightened or relaxed hair.” He says these are expensive and damage hair. “Many educators in our community who are not Rastafarians have dreadlock hairstyles, including the school official with whom we met on 10 January 2013 as well as the Deputy Principal at the nearby Thotagauta High School.” In South Africa, he says, dreadlocks “are worn also by many ordinary people because they are an attractive and practical way to manage afro-textured hair.” This is true. I know many people with dreds, who are not Rastas. If dreadlocks are common why should the law require a specifically religious justification for them?

This saga reminded me that South Africa is that strange country, in which two of the richest men, Solly and Abe Krok, who made their money selling poisonous skin lightening products to black people, later played a leading role in setting up the Apartheid Museum at Gold Reef City. Perhaps the strange esteem for a Western concept of beauty also plays a role in the prejudices against Lerato. 2

Five year ago a similar case went all the way to the Constitutional Court. It all began in 2004 when Sunali Pillay returned to Durban Girls’ High School from the spring holiday with a small nose stud. Court Chief Justice Langa held that the school has unfairly discriminated against Sunali by denying her the right wear a nose stud, a voluntary practice within her South Indian Tamil Hindu culture. It was obvious to the Chief Justice that the case was about more than a nose stud. He wrote:

If there are other learners who hitherto were afraid to express their religions or cultures and who will now be encouraged to do so, that is something to be celebrated, not feared. As a general rule, the more learners feel free to express their religions and cultures in school, the closer we will come to the society envisaged in the Constitution. The display of religion and culture in public is not a “parade of horribles” but a pageant of diversity which will enrich our schools and in turn our country.

I agree with the essence of what Justice Langa wrote, but what about learners who don’t practice a religion, or who don’t want to? Is it only “religion and culture” that will “enrich our schools and in turn our country”? What if an atheist felt that he needed to wear dreadlocks to sincerely express some part of his personality? What if a vegan refused to wear leather school shoes? What if a socially aware learner refused to wear the prescribed school blazer because she found out that it was made in a Chinese factory under near-slavery conditions?

Justice Langa does not appear to entertain such possibilities in his judgment. He wrote that the judgment requires only that “schools make exemptions for sincerely held religious and cultural beliefs and practices.”

Justice O’Regan wrote an additional judgment in the nose stud case. She was concerned that Justice Langa was placing too much emphasis on “sincerely held religious and cultural beliefs” rather than the need “to accommodate diversity in a manner which makes all learners in the school feel that they are equally worthy and respected.” Justice O’Regan pointed out that it was sensible to require religious beliefs to be “sincerely held” but that culture was different, more about “associative practices and not individual beliefs”. For O’Regan: “The question will not be whether the practice forms part of the sincerely held personal beliefs of an individual, but whether the practice is a practice pursued by a particular cultural community.” 3

This slight widening of the space for what might be protected, beyond religious belief, still begs the question. What about non-religious belief, opinion or conscience in the context of school uniforms and personal appearance?

Our Constitution is a little ambiguous. Section 9(3) outlaws discrimination on the grounds of religion or culture, but equally on the basis of “conscience” and “belief”, and section 15(1) gives equal weight to freedom of “conscience, religion, thought, belief and opinion”. There is a subtle difference though between a negative freedom from persecution or discrimination on the one hand, and a positive freedom to participate, enjoy, practise, form, join and use, on the other hand. All of these latter rights are given by sections 30 and 31 of the Constitution only in regard to language, culture or religion. Newer forms of identity associated with modernity are not considered. 4

So can our law actually go beyond protection of religious and cultural freedom to protect what Justice O’Regan calls “the right of each and every person to choose to live the life that is meaningful to them”? We don’t yet know the answer, but it would surely be regressive if our law elevated religion and culture above other ethical commitments and forms of identity. Nevertheless, for me, as a non-believer, there are still good grounds to celebrate Lerato’s victory.

I am against state elevation of religion, but even more against state preference for any particular religion. Lerato’s religion should be treated like any other. Although, in my view, Rastafarianism, like all religion, is derived from human experience and myth-making, not a divine source, I cannot abide a 13-year old being punished for identifying with it. Freedom from religion is even more important to me than freedom of religion, but these concepts have historically grown together. Resistance against the hegemony of one dominant religion has usually meant space for other religions and for non-believers.

Is this the end of the ethical dilemma? Well not quite. Richard Dawkins, the evolutionary biologist and outspoken atheist often argues that indoctrinating a child with religious belief is as bad as child abuse. He says that children should be taught about religion, that it exists, and that different people hold different beliefs. There is a need to know about religion if one wants to appreciate a lot of literature, he says. But he is emphatic on the main point: “What a child should never be taught is that you are a Catholic or Muslim child, therefore that is what you believe. That’s child abuse.” I agree that it is problematic to induct a child into a system of belief before they are at an age to test alternatives through their own experience and reason.

But I disagree with some of the way Dawkins approaches the struggle to free people from religion. He, and the so-called “new atheists” (Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris, Bill Maher etc) seem to think that simply announcing the logical flaws in religion will bring enlightenment. They do this with disdain, and sometimes a little bigotry. Religious fallacies should be exposed, and the claims to authority by religious institutions openly challenged, but a little empathy and some insight into human beings would be helpful.

The great English mathematician and Philosopher Bertrand Russell was the 20th century’s most famous critic of religion. In his book ‘Why I Am Not a Christian’ he wrote: “I say quite deliberately that the Christian religion, as organized in its churches, has been and still is the principal enemy of moral progress in the world.” He also argued that all religion is based “primarily and mainly upon fear.” But he had also, earlier in life, explained the problem with some who make a vocation out of debunking religion:

There is the Voltaire tradition, which makes fun of the whole thing from a common-sense, semi-historical, semi-literary point of view; this of course, is hopelessly inadequate, because it only gets hold of the accidents and excrescences of historical systems. There is the scientific, Darwin-Huxley attitude, which seems to me perfectly true, and quite fatal, if rightly carried out, to all the usual arguments for religion. But it is too external, too coldly critical, too remote from the emotions; moreover it cannot get to the root of the mater without the help of philosophy… But what we have to do, and what privately we do do, is to treat religious instinct with profound respect, but to insist that there is no shred or particle of truth in any of the metaphysics it has suggested: to palliate this by trying to bring out the beauty of the world and of life, so far as it exists, and above all to insist upon preserving the seriousness of the religious attitude and its habit of asking ultimate questions. 5

Russell held the view that religion was an understandable response to the pain and vicissitudes of life. He called it a “drug in misfortune” 6 and said that unlike cold logic it “feels the fundamental facts – the helplessness of man before Time and Death.” 7

The 19th century’s most famous critic of religion was Karl Marx, who, like Russell in his younger years, did not view religion simply as idiocy, but as comfort.

Man makes religion, religion does not make man. Religion is, indeed, the self-consciousness and self-esteem of man who has either not yet won through to himself, or has already lost himself again. But man is no abstract being squatting outside the world. Man is the world of man – state, society… Religion is the general theory of this world, its encyclopaedic compendium, its logic in popular form, its spiritual point d’honneur, its enthusiasm, its moral sanction, its solemn complement, and its universal basis of consolation and justification.

The struggle against religion is, therefore, indirectly the struggle against that world whose spiritual aroma is religion. Religious suffering is, at one and the same time, the expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.

The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is the demand for their real happiness. To call on them to give up their illusions about their condition is to call on them to give up a condition that requires illusions. The criticism of religion is, therefore, in embryo, the criticism of that vale of tears of which religion is the halo. 8

These “soulless conditions” refer mainly to the harsh lives of the toiling masses. But the world is an alienating, depressing and sometimes cruel place even for those of us who live in comfort. For Marx though it would be futile, and perhaps wrong, to urge Mr Radebe to give up religion without engaging, first and foremost, in the struggle for a world of freedom, equality and community, a world in which everyone, including grade 8 girls with dreadlocks have the right to education, and a world in which Mr Radebe would not be living, unemployed, in Thandani. It may well be argued though that it is necessary to abandon illusions in religion before being properly able to confront this struggle.

For some religion is itself that very struggle against injustice. The Civil Rights Movement in the United States is a humbling example of this. On that note it would only be right to give the last word to Bob Marley:

Jah come to break downpression,
Rule equality,
Wipe away transgression,
Set the captives free.

Doron Isaacs is Deputy General Secretary of Equal Education. Follow him on Twitter @doronisaacs.


  1. Although ultra-Orthodox Jews rely instead on Leviticus 19:27 as authority. (Some might find it strange that I call myself both an atheist and Jewish. Amongst Jewish people this is quite common. Judaism can be an inherited cultural identity.) 

  2. Mr Radebe says: “Lerato washes her hair every Sunday with natural products. Her locks can be woven into a neat plait, or tied back from her face in a ponytail like any long hair.” 

  3. By contrast, says O’Regan J: “A religious belief is personal, and need not be rational, nor need it be shared by others.” On the other hand she sounds an important note of caution right up front: “Both ‘culture’ and ‘religion’ are terms that resist definition.” 

  4. It is interesting in this regard to consider this passage by O’Regan J in the Pillay (nose stud) case at [155]: “I am anxious that an approach to cultural rights which is based predominantly on subjective perceptions of cultural practices may undervalue the need for solidarity between different communities in our society. After all, the Preamble of our Constitution proclaims that, ‘South Africa belongs to all who live in it, united in our diversity.’ It does not envisage a society of atomised communities circling in the shared space that is our country, but a society that is unified in its diversity. That unity requires a ‘pluralistic solidarity’ between our different racial, cultural, religious and linguistic communities. That solidarity, of course, must not be based on domination by a majority culture or group, but on a shared understanding of the human dignity of all citizens and the recognition of our need for solidarity with one another in our common land.” 

  5. Russell ‘Letter to Goldie Lowes Dickinson’ 16 July 1903 published in The Autobiography of Bertrand Russell Vol 1 1872-1914 (Allen & Unwin: 1967) pg 186 - 187. 

  6. Ibid. 

  7. Russell ‘Letter to Goldie Lowes Dickinson’ 26 August 1902 published in The Autobiography pg 185. In the same letter he said: “Religion and art both, it seems to me, are attempts to humanize the universe – beginning, no doubt, with the humanizing of man … And so all religion becomes an achievement, a victory, an assurance that although man may be powerless, his ideals are not so … ” 

  8. Introduction to A Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right which he wrote in 1843 at the age of 25. 

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