IN 1978 Margaret Gardener won the Miss Universe beauty pageant. The event held in Acapulco was not without controversy. John Vorster was president of a white minority regime. Apartheid was in full sway. Nelson Mandela was in jail. The Miss South Africa competition was an all-white affair. I was in kindergarten. I still remember the fuss about Gardener’s black swimsuit, my first “sexual awakening”, and the many Scope covers and feature stories which followed, all written next to articles promoting the SADF, Rhodesia, and South Africa’s control of South West Africa.
On 26 November 2017 to our surprise, Demi-Leigh Nel Peters, a bubbly girl from Sedgefield, a small coastal town on South Africa’s east coast, won the Miss Universe for the second time in nearly four decades. Democracy is in full sway. Jacob Zuma is president. The crooks, not the democrats are all in jail. At least some of them are. If only our collective future looked as bright as Demi-Leigh.
If you thought this was going to be just another pageant, then, I’m afraid you got it all wrong. Not only is Demi-Leigh a youth ambassador for the nation, but she totally axed it, and flawed her hosts on several New York talk shows with her confidence and personality, and a reign which looks set to be all about surprises.
Yes, to her critics, she does not represent the majority perception of beauty in Africa nor is she black like Miss Haiti, nor a superpower like Melania Trump. What she has, is the kind of sass that you find in every small town Afrikaner girl in South Africa, a nation still coming to grips with its past, at the same time that we are marking the fourth anniversary of the death of Mandela, with the neck and neck race for president of the ANC, and a democratic process which has seen the rise of a brand new political party under Makhosi Khosa.
Our self-perception, could do with a bit of confidence and what Demi Leigh represents is the kind of bubbling eruption of opportunity which marked South Africa’s return to the free world in 1994. The Marie Claire fuss about her tan (take it from me, the colour of her skin is real), has no place in a non-racial society. It has even less place in the wider world. The Miss Universe pageant is anything but an all-white affair as suggested by activist critics.
Janelle “Penny” Commissiong was the first black woman to hold the Miss Universe title. She won the title in 1977 at the Miss Universe pageant held in the Dominican Republic.
A list of “black” titleholders compiled by Afropedia include:
Leila Lopes (2011), Angola
Mpule Kwelagobe (1999), Botswana
Wendy Fitzwilliam (1998), Trinidad and Tobago
Chelsi Smith (1995), USA
Janelle Commissiong(1977), Trinidad and Tobago
Time to put aside racial stigma and celebrate.
South Africa gave the world, Steven Bantu Biko, Oliver Tambo, Nelson Mandela, Robert Sobukwe, Caster Semenya, Wayde van Niekerk, Elon Musk and Trevor Noah. Now is the right moment for Demi-Leigh Nel Peters.