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The Ugly Face of South Africa

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of
AP Photo/Eugene Hoshiko

?On December 12, Israel’s southern Red Sea resort and port city, Eilat, will host the 2021 Miss Universe pageant. The contestants have not yet arrived, but the news is not all happy smiles. If you didn’t have a reason to pay attention to the annual beauty pageant you probably might not ever know about it. But recently, the ugly face of one of the contestants’ countries has cast an antisemitic cloud on it.

South Africa will be represented by Lalela Mswane, sort of. While she holds the Miss South Africa title, after announcing that the pageant will be held in Israel, domestic pressure mounted for her to boycott Israel and withdraw. Her refusal caused South African leaders to withdraw its support and funding for her.  Lalela is an accomplished dancer, model, and lawyer who speaks three languages. She is also a Christian who understands the Biblical imperative to bless Israel, and conversely the awareness of what becomes of those who curse Israel.

Lalela Mswane is also black. Although she is only 24 and has no first-hand memories of apartheid in her country, her family no doubt suffered for generations as a result of the discriminatory segregationist racial laws that tarnished her country until 1994, and which governed every aspect of the lives of every black person. Lalela’s response to the pressure was as spot-on as she is beautiful and accomplished.   She said that of all pageants and international gatherings in the world, Miss Universe should not be “politically inspired.”

Pressuring Lalela to boycott Israel, and then boycotting her, comes from the hateful leadership of South Africa’s ruling party, the African National Congress (ANC).  The rhetoric coming from such “notable” leaders as Archbishop Desmond Tutu (and others) accusing Israel of “apartheid treatment of Palestinians,” would be funny if it were not so egregious.  It apparently does not represent the voice and opinion of all South Africans, but they have hijacked the narrative so that good people like Lalela are bullied simply for engaging Israel, much less supporting it. 

As much as South Africa has a tainted history, today if it’s notable for anything, it’s the propagation of the lie that Israel is an apartheid state.   It disproves the retort that children have made to one another for generations, “it takes one to know one.”   South Africa should know better. 

It’s particularly egregious that a country with South Africa’s actual apartheid history would accuse any other country of being an apartheid state. South Africans know that there is no parallel in the racial laws that governed every aspect of life for the majority black population. South Africans also know that using the phrase apartheid so loosely and inappropriately, cheapens and diminishes the actual suffering that so many black South Africans endured.

Despite being disavowed by her own country, Lalela Mswane has not only not stepped down, but she has doubled down on her plans to participate representing her country with pride.  Some are saying that, now, South Africa doesn’t deserve having such an accomplished representative.  But she’s staying the course, admirable on so many levels. 

It is a vivid paradox—having such an accomplished and beautiful contestant representing a country whose government and civic leaders have shown their ugly face to the rest of the world.  Like many events in and relating to Israel, many around the world have used it to gang up on Israel and harass those having anything to do with it in a positive way. 

If there were a pageant of hate, South Africa would be a favorite to win. Two decades of boycott and delegitimization efforts have only backfired on those the boycotters claim to represent. How many Palestinian Arabs have lost well-paying jobs because the Israeli companies for which they worked were in the crosshairs of the haters? Even the Arab world has recognized that not only is Israel not an obstacle to peace, but it is a foundation of building peace. 

Perhaps it says something extraordinary about Lalela Mswane in resisting this pressure that makes her all the more exceptional, and deserving to win the competition. Hopefully the judges will see that. She demonstrates poise, integrity, faith, and resilience that should make all of South Africa proud. She should not be a punching bag of people with evil, antisemitic intentions. It seems that being more than just a pretty face, Miss South Africa has a good head on her shoulders, too. 

There’s no question that those who have called for her to boycott the competition in Israel would never think to boycott a competition or international gathering in countries in which actual human rights violations take place. Those who preach antisemitic rhetoric as they do see no problem in their duplicity. 

Nevertheless, the pressure which Lalela is no doubt enduring, and the defamation that comes with it, are unpleasant stresses at a time that someone like her should be focusing on competing and winning the competition for which she’s been selected.

We need to pray for Miss South Africa, that she should continue to have the strength and endurance to know what is right and follow her convictions. We need to pray that she and her family all remain blessed, and that no more threats come against them. And we need to pray that she excels in sharing not just her beauty but her character. If anyone deserves to win, she does. By becoming Miss Universe, she will radiate all that’s good about her and for which she stands, not coincidentally a light coming from Israel. By winning, that will send an unequivocal message to the hateful leaders in her country and the rest of the world that light always overcomes the darkness. 

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