Look back at the “Policing Appeareances, Reclaiming Aesthetics” Workshop

By Karabo Asala

On the 22nd of May 2024, IFAS-Research hosted the “Policing Appeareances, Reclaiming Aesthetics” workshop at their offices in Braamfontein, Johannesburg. 

This workshop sought to explore how power relationships based on race, gender, class, age and other criteria operate through the policing of appearances and how aesthetic practices contribute to the renegotiation of such power relationships in two South African contexts, namely: the schooling system and gang-present communities. The event, split into 2 sessions,  was organised by two of IFAS-Research’s 2024 grantees: Jeanne Bouyat and Line Relisieux, and was focused on both of their ongoing research projects.

Jeanne Bouyat (University of Johannesburg) on the policing of appearances in South African schools

Jeanne Bouyat (credit: Karabo Asala)

Jeanne rendered a presentation during the first session based on her ongoing research project at the University of Johannesburg. She mentioned that her research was initiated by witnessing a girls-led protest against their school’s restrictions on hairstyles in Soweto during her PhD studies back in August of 2017. She is collaborating with Francine Nyambek-Mebenga, a fellow researcher within her field, based from Université Paris-Est Créteil – UPE.

Jeanne provided a brief overview of three research fields connected to their project, namely research that has been conducted on school uniforms, the history of school uniforms, which traces its origins back to religious education and boys-only schools in 13th century England where they were used as a disciplinary tool, as well as the contemporary effects of school uniforms. The history of uniforms have always been intimately tied to the colonial education system, particularly the legacies of the British Empire, although not exclusively. Jeanne shared that although there is a lack of empirical evidence on the correlation of school uniforms to discipline and academic performance, there are however general arguments that persist in favour of them till date.

Interestingly, she raised a proposed plan on the National Guidelines on School Uniforms (drafted in 2006) that seeks to not make uniforms mandatory in South African schools, in efforts to encourage diversity and freedom of expression. However, this has not yet come into effect.

Focusing on the role that appearances play in identity formation, she delved into research that deals with the policing of “Black Afro” hair in relation to the schooling institution in particular. This has been a growing field in the United States of late, where investigations into hair being used as a proxy for race have been conducted. The CROWN Act, which is a good example of legislation that has come as a result of these global developments and their legal developments, continue to extend discussions concerning critical race theory. Recent “nappy hair movements” that have come in the aftermath of protests such as the one at the Pretoria High School for Girls in 2016 which came as a result of a contemporary apartheid racial classification in the form of a “pencil test”.

Line Relisieux (London School of Economics and Political Science) on the reclaiming of aesthetics by maternal figures around street gangs

Line Relisieux (credit: Karabo Asala)

The second session of the workshop focused delved into Line Relisieux’s ongoing research project focused on gang-present communities in the Cape Flats and examining the relationships between mothers and gangsters. Line argued that the aesthetics of gangsters can be equated to those of ‘toughness’, in contrast to the aesthetics of mothers, which are often viewed in society as ‘modest’ and respectable.

Drawing on Elaine Salo’s research on how men and women in the Manenberg township, located on the outskirts of Cape Town, navigate their daily lives to redefine themselves as dignified individuals through the everyday practices of ‘ordentlikheid’, or respectability, Line illuminated the clash in the identities of mothers and sons within gang-present communities.She highlighted the importance of gendered aesthetics, since gender is an important identity formation tool in these gang-present communities.

The findings of her interviews with mothers in the Cape Flats whose sons are directly affected by gangsterism was shared with the audience. These women, some of whom are religious, shared challenges on navigating the complex relationships they had with their sons after they joined street gangs. Delving into the aesthetics of the gangsters, Line questioned the women on how they reacted to their sons getting tattoos, which are widely considered to be a ‘rite of passage’ in the Cape Flats, following their induction into street gangs. They are intentioned to be visible, often placed on either the neck, chest, face or arms and are said to symbolize a sense of belonging to a particular group of men in local societies that ascribe to heteronormative standards of masculinity.

Presentations by both researchers were insightful and sparked interesting conversations with the audience. The event was attended by approximately 15 people, including academics, students, and members of civil society. 

Attendees of the event (credit: Karabo Asala)


Jeanne Bouyat: Postdoctoral researcher at the Centre for Education Rights and Transformation (CERT) at University of Johannesburg. She holds a PhD in Political Studies from Sciences Po Paris and is also a research associate at the Centre for International Studies (CERI) at Sciences Po and a fellow of the Convergences research Institute of Migrations (French National Research Agency).

Line Relisieux: PhD candidate in Human Geography at the London School of Economics and Political Science. She holds an MA in International Relations at the Johns Hopkins University SAIS Europe/ Sciences Po Lille/ Westphalian University of Münster.

Karabo Asala is a Research Intern at IFAS-Research. She recently completed her Joint Honour’s degree at the University of the Witwatersrand in Development Studies and International Relations. She joined IFAS-Research in April, following the completion of her exchange Master’s programme at Sciences Po Paris.