Almost 600 million viewers watched the Miss Universe pageant on 13 December. Beauty pageants remain grounds of contention for several reasons, yet Miss Universe is one of the most watched events in the world.
Enter Miss South Africa Lalela Mswane who has, since her youth, set her sights on becoming Miss Universe.
Had the competition been held in any other country, it would have been business as usual. But, the Miss Universe pageant was held in Israel.
Mswane did not pick the venue. Nonetheless, the Boycott Divestment and Sanction movements with their animus towards Israel, gave her little time to celebrate her Miss South Africa victory. No sooner had she been crowned, the calls began on her to boycott the international pageant.
The campaign was relentless and the heat notched up when the Minister of Arts, Sports and Culture Nathi Mthethwa withdrew his support.
The irony is that while beauty pageants have been defined by some as “toxic”, the environment created for Mswane took toxicity to a different level. She was subjected to public bullying, with our government complicit in this.
Without saying a word, Mswane gave her poignant and elegant response. As her national costume, she chose a white bodysuit with feathers, symbolising a dove of peace.
It was only on her return to South Africa that she spoke out. During an emotional press conference, she spoke of the death threats she and her family received and the real fear she faced.
She was kept awake at night, worrying about her family’s safety. She felt abandoned by government and described her experience as a “baptism of fire”.
Her detractors tried to blot her every action. But she has risen above them and hopes her actions “to choose courage over comfort” will inspire others.
I was one of the millions of people who watched the Miss Universe pageant. All the women looked beautiful to me. But then, I believe there’s beauty in everyone. I also believe there isn’t one definition of beauty. However we describe it, it is prized.
Legends are replete with the ability of “beautiful” women to change history. The legends don’t describe this beauty. Rather, they describe the power of what it can achieve.
It is this kind of appeal Mswane possesses.
One of her most profound comments was: “I feel like, as a leader, you need to be able to stand for something, even if it means standing alone or with very few people.”
The pageant was simply a door for her to pass through. Fate surely must have something special in store for her. She’s the stuff that legends are made of.
-Zeifert is head of communications South African Jewish Board of Deputies.