One may argue that beauty pageants are problematic and outdated but an appetite for such pageantry remains. Over the recent years one has witnessed the crowning of Zozibini Tunzi and Shudufhadzo Musida as Miss South Africa receive great praise online. Most even know that Tunzi went on to be crowned Miss Universe in 2019. In addition to many other things, they came to be embodiments of the mantra for people of colour — representation matters. That it does, is not up for argument.
The pageant has recently crowned its newest winner, 24-year-old Lalela Mswane. Controversy emerged when it became known that Mswane will represent South Africa in the upcoming Miss Universe pageant in Israel. As a country all too familiar with the harrowing politics of apartheid, many South Africans are rightly up in arms about what this means, given the on-going apartheid in that region.
As South Africans, we know the significance of cultural boycotts. We know the significance of taking a stand. They add to the collective pressure for systemic change. Some may argue that the Miss Universe contest will continue with or without South Africa’s participation, and that is true. But as a representative of our country, it is not wrong to expect the organisation controlling the crown to be especially aware of the human rights violations, apartheid states and the power of taking a stand.
What has struck me is the response by the Miss South Africa organisation to the backlash they have received as a result of their decision to go ahead with sending Mswane to Israel. In an official statement on their Instagram page, the organisation has said many things. They speak about Mswane’s dream to represent her country globally, how the backlash the organisation is receiving is bullying Mswane and standing in the way of her dreams and ambition, how Tunzi wearing her natural hair was groundbreaking, how these women are role models to other young women, how Mswane shows that it is possible to be “beautiful while being clever and educated” and, finally, that neither their organisation nor the Miss Universe pageant is political.
There is a lot that is extremely unfortunate about this statement. Why is Tunzi’s natural hair meant to even be groundbreaking? Are they absolved in their role in pushing certain beauty standards in the pageant prior to Tunzi? By saying that Mswane proves that one can be beautiful and educated, are they suggesting a benchmark that says otherwise?
Adding further insult to injury, talking on The Clement Manyathela show on 702 on 10 November, the Miss SA chief executive emphasised the agency and personal choice of Mswane, who apparently is clear that she wants to go to Israel and participate in the pageant. In what sounded like a public relations mission, the chief executive then spoke about 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. What exactly must she experience to stand up for human rights?
Additionally, it is deeply problematic to assert that the organisation — and by extension the pageant — is not political. Calling these women role models, talking about their natural hair, their ambition, their voice is all political. Representing a country on a global stage is also political. It appears there is a convenient misunderstanding of the word, attributing it solely to party politics and governments. Issues of identity, race and gender are all deeply political. For this organisation to paint itself as apolitical is farcical.
Beyond the contents of their statements and interviews, which highlight how political this all is, there is a large amount of research that looks into beauty pageants and issues of gender. It is often through these pageants that the intersection of national identity and the world plays out.
This is because, as sociologist Nira Yuval Davis argues, there are strong ties between nationhood, culture and women. I’ve encountered this in my own work where I’ve done similar research on national identity and the pageant worlds from two contexts — Nigeria and India. What is emphasised in both countries is an ideal femininity that is global and deeply local. These women are understood as symbols of their country as they and their country encounter the broader world.
In India, for example, research explains that after the advent of globalisation, an anxiety emerged in relation to how the country and its culture would fare in relation to the dominance of the West and its cultural imperialism. In the early years of a globalised India, the country also saw six women win Miss World and Miss Universe titles. They include Aishwariya Rai, Sushmita Sen and Priyanka Chopra. This success on the global stage became a way for the Indian media to frame contemporary Indian femininity. Through coverage of these women meaning emerged on what it meant to be an Indian woman in a globalised world.
So, for the Miss South Africa organisation to conveniently claim it is apolitica is not good enough. If you want these women to represent this country on a global stage, this cannot happen at the expense of what it means to be South African. A core element in this regard is having a deep awareness of human rights.