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Miss South Africa’s Big Miss Universe Decision: Which side of history will she choose?

KwaZulu-Natal’s Lalela Mswane before being crowned Miss South Africa 2021 at the glittering pageant finale held at Grand Arena, GrandWest in Cape Town. Photographer Ayanda Ndamane/ African News Agency (ANA)

KwaZulu-Natal’s Lalela Mswane before being crowned Miss South Africa 2021 at the glittering pageant finale held at Grand Arena, GrandWest in Cape Town. Photographer Ayanda Ndamane/ African News Agency (ANA)

Published Nov 20, 2021


'Uneasy is the head that wears a crown'

No phrase has rung truer for a South African than it has for Lalela Mswane, Miss South Africa 2021. The infamous quote from William Shakespeare's Henry IV Part 2 play has likely been ringing in the 24-year-old beauty queen, ballet dancer and LLB graduate's head for the past few weeks as she decides on the biggest decision of her life- does she go to Israel for Miss Universe or does she listen to the South Africans telling her it’s not a good look?

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This is likely a far cry to what she had been expecting her first few weeks as the fairest in the land to be. It is not far-fetched to think that she would be settling into her newfound fame, the toast of the town and a highly in-demand guest at exclusive soirées. She would be vying for designer attention, each trying to get her to wear garments from their latest collections. She would be interviewed across media platforms, on the cover of magazines, talk show couches and radio mics, all while smiling through it all wearing her sash and crown.

And that smile would probably by now a permanent and dazzlingly white smile plastered on her face, forever ready for a picture with admirers.

We should be waiting in anticipation to see what her coach, Werner Wessels, has curated for her to wear at Miss Universe, where she would be taking on some of the most beautiful and intelligent women in the world to be crowned the fairest, and hopefully, perform as well as her predecessors, Zozibini Tunzi, Tamryn Green and Demi-Leigh Tebow.

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And yet, her life has gone from total freedom to, well, Rapunzel. And she has been caught in a political scandal that can ruin her life forever.

When the news broke that the Miss Universe Organisation had chosen Eilat in Israel as the host of the 2021 competition, there were murmurs of how this would impact the pageant world. Israel’s ongoing war with Palestine was immediately brought up in pageant discussions online, with many in solidarity with Palestine wanting the venue to be changed.

However, Paula M. Shugart, president of the Miss Universe Organisation, released a statement in July saying that Israel was the perfect host country.

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"Israel has been on our shortlist of host countries for a number of years due to its rich history, beautiful landscapes, myriad of cultures and appeal as a global tourist destination. It became clear that Israel has the best resources to host Miss Universe. We look forward to deepening our commitment to creating meaningful cultural conversation, connection and understanding through this partnership.”

This statement came barely two months after the conflict in the region and made no mention of what had happened. And the pageant is now in the spotlight for being held in Israel amid boycott calls against the country over its treatment of the Palestinians. The reigning Miss Universe, Andrea Meza, this week said the beauty pageant shouldn't be politicised, even with pressure on contestants to drop out in solidarity with the Palestinians.

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The Israeli–Palestinian conflict is one of the world's most enduring conflicts, with the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip resulting in decades of conflict between the two regions.

Earlier this year, fresh conflict erupted in the region, reminding the world that there still needs to be greater attempts at resolving the conflict in Israel and Palestine. More than 200 people, including more than 100 women and children, were killed in Gaza in May. In Israel, 12 people, including two children, were killed.

There were global protests during the conflict, including in South Africa, after the Jerusalem District Courts authorised the displacement of Palestinian families in the occupied East Jerusalem neighbourhood, Sheikh Jarrah. This decision would turn Palestinian homes over to Israeli settlers. The conflict lasted for 11 days.

For many, it was a reminder of where South Africa comes from, where displacement of black, Indigenous People of Colour happened during the apartheid era. Hence, many South Africans took to the streets, protesting against Israel’s displacement of Palestinians. It hit too close to home.

And now with Mswane and the Miss South Africa Organisation insisting that they are taking part in the competition, the backlash has been swift and has led to the government withdrawing their support for the organisation, and online and in-person boycotts have been happening, urging Miss South Africa not participate in Miss Universe.

Which now brings us back to Mswane. What does she do? Diminishing the impact of her decision would be doing her a disservice. It is a Catch 22.

Does she, a young, black woman from a country that is still reeling from the horrors of apartheid, continue to compete in a pageant hosted in a country with ongoing apartheid, even today, and by doing so, choose to ignore the history and turmoil of Israel and Palestine and go take part in Miss Universe?

Or does she choose to rather stay home and try her luck at Miss Universe 2022, even though she will anger parts of society and likely be accused of being anti-Semitic?

What are the implications for each decision? Will she eventually be forgiven by either side, or will she be a pariah, forever followed by an asterisk whenever she speaks up about a pertinent issue?

But most importantly, does she actually have a choice in all this? Or is she simply following what the Miss South Africa contract stipulates?

The 24-year-old – who comes from KwaSokhulu in Richards Bay – graduated with a Bachelor of Law from the University of Pretoria. Photographer Ayanda Ndamane/ African News Agency (ANA)

It would be remiss for us to ignore that once you win a beauty pageant, you give up your life for a year. Everything you do has to be approved by the owners of the beauty pageant, which in this case, is Stephanie Weil, owner of Nine Squared Communications and CEO of Miss South Africa.

Everything Mswane wears, says, does, people she meets with, events she attends, what she posts on social media, who she has conversations with, has to be approved by the Miss South Africa organisation. We would think she has autonomy and agency. She doesn't. Everything has to be approved.

This is why I am not surprised that her voice has not been heard in this discussion on whether she goes to represent South Africa in a country that is seen as an apartheid state or not. That Weil been the one speaking to the media about Mswane’s participation in the competition and not Mswane, has been telling. We do not know how Mswane really feels about competing. We only know what Weil, her boss, is saying.

Photographer Ayanda Ndamane/ African News Agency (ANA)

Weil has, in statements and interviews, emphasised the agency and personal choice of Mswane, who apparently is clear that she wants to go to Israel and participate in the pageant and also how Mswane would be able to bring about change by attending the event and that she would only be able to form an opinion if she visits the country and experiences it herself. And yet, this is coming from her and not Mswane.

For such a powerful speaker, Mswane’s silence has been deafening. It is also intellectually dishonest to state that the Miss Universe pageant is not a “politically inspired event” when the very nature of pageants is political.

Uneasy is the head that wears a crown? Well, maybe it’s time to take it off.

This article first appeared in Saturday Insider, November 20, 2021