Shame on you Twitter trolls for doubting Zulaikha Patel’s activism

Pupils from Pretoria High School for Girls comfort each other following a meeting with Gauteng MEC for Education,Panyaza Lesufi. Picture: Phill Magakoe

Zulaikha Patel. Does that name ring a bell? 

Said alone with no picture in sight, perhaps the bell at the door might not be loud enough. But, if I put a picture of a petite young black girl with voluptuous Afro hair and two fists raised in a teacher’s face, perhaps the ringing bell begins to become audible again. 

In 2016, South Africa was aggressively introduced to the 13-year-old girl who was brave enough to be part of a learner revolt at her former model C school, Pretoria Girls High School. 

A group of Grade 8 and 9 pupils had staged a protest within the school corridors. They were protesting against the school’s policy on their black hair and their treatment for speaking their African home languages within the gates of the former whites-only school.  

She stood her ground in the face of a school teacher and within a click of a camera phone button, we would all soon know about their plight at the girls-only school.
Scores of young activists were picketing at different intersections in Pretoria CBD, denouncing the abuse of women and girls in South Africa. Picture: Jonisayi Maromo / ANA

And yes, this was happening in 2016, not 1986, not 1996, but 2016 - some 22 years into a free, new, democratic and constitutional South Africa, with rights for all, black or blue.  

Within no time, those first photos of the protest surfaced on social media and pretty rapidly spread like wildfire.
Scores of young activists were picketing at different intersections in Pretoria CBD, denouncing the abuse of women and girls in South Africa. Picture: Jonisayi Maromo / ANA

Quickly thereafter, it was on news websites, then on the TV news and discussed for days on end on talk radio stations. Before too long, Gauteng Education MEC Panyaza Lesufi was skating speedily to Pretoria to put out the fires and back the girls. He had to. He did. He got his way.  

But why am I reminding you about Zulaikha Patel?

During President Cyril Ramaphosa’s State of the Nation Address in Parliament on Thursday night, it became apparent that Zulaikha Patel, was one of the invited guests. 

She was in good company, with the likes of Miss Universe Zozibini Tunzi, Rugby World Cup winning captain Siya Kolisi, also invited to the SONA for the first time. Pictures of Zulaikha Patel outside Parliament surfaced and so the Twitter trolls came out of their holes - beating down a teenager and questioning her activism.

It is for this reason that we now turn to the Oxford Dictionary to define the word ‘Activism’. “Activism; The use of direct and noticeable action to achieve a result, usually a political or social one”. 

At 13, Zulaikha Patel demonstrated immeasurable levels of activism at such a young age. When I was 13, I was struggling to score decent runs as a pretend batsman in the B team of our Under 14 cricket team back in high school in Durban. 

But that 13-year-old’s actions have reached the higher echelons of government. Last Friday, in a report in an Independent Media report, we were reminded of the actions of Zulaikha Patel.  

“Compulsory physical education, all pupils learning an indigenous language and allowing Afros to be worn freely at schools, are just some of the proposals the government hopes will improve young South Africans' lives by 2030,” read a report by political journalist Loyiso Sidimba. You can read it here.

Zulaikha Patel’s actions have found their way into the Department of Planning, Monitoring and Evaluation’s Draft National Youth Policy 2020-2030.  


So at 13, Zulaikha Patel, already had enough steel within her to stand up for herself, and her peers, and sparked the type of bravery you see and read about in the likes of… Let me name no names. But you get me. 

Her singular action of bravery in the corridors of Pretoria Girls High School sparked fierce hair protests at schools around the country, mostly at former model C schools, as girls fought back against what they called unfair and archaic school policies. 

The actions of a 13-year-old Zulaikha Patel did that. The actions of a 13-year-old Zulaikha Patel had women in their 30s reflecting on the abuse they endured at their respective schools, it had people sitting up and being honest with themselves, acknowledging they were not brave enough to fight the schools as she did.
Zulaikha Patel was set to lead a protest against gender-based violence outside the Pretoria Magistrate’s Court.

So, how do we, in 2020, have young South Africans, likely in their 20s or 30s, how do we have the audacity to question the activism of a young teenager who stood up for what she believed in? 

Did she not represent our timid selves who bowed at archaic school rules in the name of codes of conducts? How do you - at such a big age - diminish a brave act of a 13-year-old?  What she achieved in that one act could possibly be the biggest act of her life, or it could be not, it could be one of many more to come. Time will tell and her path will lead her to her destiny, whatever it is. 

But the questioning and the doubt around whether if she is an activist or not truly still boggles the mind. Was it truly really jealousy about the fact that a young teenager had been invited to Parliament? Are we so bitter that we want to spoil a moment of recognition for a teenager over retweets, likes and shares? 

The truth is, and this may be a bit of a bitter pill to swallow for some, but most of us will never be invited to a State of the Nation Address in our lives. This is not because perhaps you are ordinary and undeserving. Well that may also be the case.  

Not everybody out there gets the applause or the credit for what they have achieved. And that's okay - what matters is that you did something. But to sit behind the keyboard of your phone and type away and trample on a teenager is pathetic in anyone's language. We can do and be better, it starts with giving credit where it is due. 

During our transition from pencil writing to pen writing sometime around Grade 3 or 4, I distinctly remember my class teacher with a consistent message: ‘Think before you ink’. She never lied.