“If I had not come to Israel to compete in the Miss Universe pageant, I think I would have regretted it for the rest of my life,” said Miss South Africa Lalela Mswane, who defied the South African government that pressured her to boycott the contest, because it is being held in Israel. She spoke in an interview on Thursday night, in between rehearsals for the pageant’s musical numbers, breaking her silence about the pressure she has faced.
The pageant will take place on Monday morning at 2 a.m. in Eilat, and will be broadcast around the world. This is the first time it has been held in Israel.
“My soul would not have been at peace if I had skipped it,” said Mswane, a law school graduate, model and dancer. A devout Catholic, she said that she was moved when she visited the Old City of Jerusalem with the other contestants, especially the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, where she felt “calmness and a sense of renewal.”
This feeling of calmness was particularly welcome because the 24-year-old who became Miss South Africa in October has been in the eye of a storm of controversy since she won the title. The South African government’s Ministry of Sport, Arts and Culture came into conflict with the organizers of the South African pageant after the government called for Mswane to boycott, citing Israeli “atrocities against Palestinians.”
South Africa has downgraded its diplomatic relations with Israel in recent years and withdrawn its ambassador. South African politicians released statements calling on Mswane to boycott, describing Israel as an “apartheid regime” and questioning how any South African could choose to participate in an event held in the country. The government withdrew its support, although the national pageant continued to back her.
Stephanie Weil, CEO of the Miss South Africa organization, wrote on Instagram: “Lalela will be a role model to young women – not just across the country, but across the African continent. Anyone who wants to rob Lalela of her moment in the spotlight is unkind and short-sighted.”
Fleur Hassan-Nahoum, deputy mayor of Jerusalem, praised her on Twitter after the contestants visited the capital two weeks ago, for “speaking truth to power and not just being a beautiful but a very brave lady.”
Political leaders in South African continued to push her to drop out. Taking part in the contest could “prove disastrous to her [Mswane’s] future and public standing as a young, black woman,” said Arts Minister Nathi Mthethwa.
But on Thursday night, Mswane, who comes from Richards Bay in the KwaZulu-Natal province, did not sound like a woman who felt that she faced a disastrous future. “Certain people have put me through hell and back,” she admitted. “It has not been the easiest thing to deal with. But I choose to be optimistic.”
Her religious faith has helped. “The way everything unfolded reminded me of His greatness and why I’m here.”
She was enthusiastic about the friendliness of Israelis she had met: “I always thought South Africa has the friendliest people on earth but it might be rivaled by Israel.”
Mswane preferred not to talk about specific political issues.
She is certain that she made the correct choice to use the platform given by the pageant’s publicity “to shed a light on the issue of women’s rights.” She is also concerned that young South Africans lack opportunities, and she runs a foundation that aims to empower youth.
While some South Africans have criticized her decision, others support her. “I’ve gotten every kind of comment on social media,” she said.
Although Mswane was always determined to come to Eilat, another obstacle got in her way: the Omicron variant of COVID-19, which was found in South Africa. But she was able to make it to Israel just in time.
Asked about her post-pageant plans, Mswane said, “My primary goal is to win. I’m a firm believer. I give it all to God.”