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A 16-year-old grade 10 pupil who moved from Johannesburg to the KwaZulu-Natal midlands in December has not been allowed to enrol at a school less than 2km from her home because she has tattoos.

The girl’s mother, a domestic worker, said the principal had told her children from Johannesburg were troublemakers and her daughter would be welcome only if she had the tattoos removed. The girl has her name tattooed on an arm and a cross on her hand.

The mother, who cannot be named to protect the child’s identity, has now, with the assistance of the Legal Resources Centre, launched an urgent application in the Pietermaritzburg high court against both the principal and the MEC for education.

She is seeking an order compelling her daughter’s admission to the school within three days, arguing that her constitutional right to basic education is being infringed.

The mother moved to Nottingham Road with her employers in December and took her daughter with her. In January she visited the school and was told by the principal that it was full. She then contacted the education department and was told there was a place at the school.

In her affidavit in the urgent application, which is expected to be heard this week, she said she went back to the school on February 12 and saw the principal. He cannot be named to safeguard the girl’s identity.

“He was about to give me the application forms when he asked me about my daughter’s behaviour. He said he did not like learners from Johannesburg because they caused problems at his school. He told me the school had strict rules.

The girl has her name tattooed on an arm and a cross on her hand

“He then asked if she had a gold tooth. I said no. He then asked whether she had piercings, and I said yes, but that they could be removed. He finally asked if she had tattoos. I answered yes.

“He said that would be a problem. He said he did not like that and would hold her application until she had them removed.”

The mother said he told her she had until March 1 to bring the necessary documents to enrol the girl but only if she had removed her tattoos. She said her employers consulted a dermatologist, who said the procedure would be painful and with the girl’s skin type tattoos could not be completely removed.

Her employer appealed to the principal to reconsider, saying the tattoos could be covered, but he told them the matter was being dealt with by the school governing body.

The Legal Resources Centre sent a letter to the school and the MEC in mid-February but got no response. On March 11 the mother enrolled her daughter in a school in Mooi River, more than 17km away, as the child had missed four weeks of the school year.

She said she was paying a driver R700 to take the child there and back, which she cannot afford, and was “desperate” for her daughter to be admitted to the local school.

A spokesperson for education MEC Kwazi Mthethwa said the issue fell under the code of conduct and that schools had different policies. “We will have to check what the policy at that school is … we will investigate and get both sides and then take the necessary action. We always protect the rights of young people to have access to education.”