South Africa's glamorous boycott of Israel's Miss Universe

South African boycott of Miss Universe in Israel outshines feeble Arab governments
4 min read
22 Nov, 2021
South Africa's boycotting of Miss Universe in Israel, though a small act of solidarity with Palestinians, is a refreshing form of bravery, writes Nyasha Bhobo.
A protester waves a Palestinian flag during a pro-Palestinian march in central Johannesburg, on 23 May 2021. [Getty]

South Africa's government has refused to give diplomatic support for the Miss South Africa representative to compete in the Miss Universe that is planned to be held in Israel this December. Despite being located 5,500 miles away from Tel Aviv, South Africa has outshone neighbouring Arab states in defending Palestinians dignity.

The Miss Universe beauty pageant will be held in Eilat, a picture-square port town in southern Israel on 13 December. In the eyes of the South African government, there is no beauty in this beauty pageant.

On 14 November, South Africa's government demanded that the country's representative to the pageant, Lalela Mswane, boycott the contest given that Israel is actively committing atrocities against Palestinians. The racism, violation of rights, illegal settlements, and apartheid laws of Israel are well documented;  hence, South Africa cannot in good conscience participate in the upcoming Israel-hosted Miss Universe, argued the South Africa government.

"Despite being located 5,500 miles away from Tel Aviv, South Africa has outshone neighbouring Arab states in defending Palestinians dignity"

Nevertheless, the Miss South Africa delegation, operated by a private corporation, has chosen to defy South Africa's government position and will still send Mswane to compete in Israel.

This act of bravery is consistent with the South African government's record in defending Palestinians rights.

For example, on 4 November, at the start of the current olives harvest, South Africa's ambassador to Israel, Lesiba Machaba, earned global applauds when he bravely verbally confronted an Israeli Defence Forces soldiers who were blocking Palestinian farmers from picking olives near Hebron, in the occupied West Bank. "These people simply want olives. How dangerous can they be with just a bucket? (Meanwhile), you are carrying a gun," fumed Ambassador Machaba standing up to a stubborn Israeli trooper.

In 2019, at the height of the Trump administration arm-twisting of Arab nations to forge a "peace deal of the century" South Africa, courageously, downgraded its ties with Israel, reducing her embassy to a liaison office.

South Africa has a lived experience of dehumanizing settler colonialism. In 1994 it ended a hundred years of racist, white Apartheid subjection, and therefore has a clear understanding of the plight of the Palestinian people, who are thousands of miles away. Since 1994, successive South African governments have regularly called out Israel violence, land theft, and other crimes against Palestinians.

South Africa's brave diplomatic opposition to Israeli impunity has been costly for her national interests knowing that the US, Israel's ultimate protector, does not take lightly to anyone calling out Israel's misdemeanours.

However, South Africa's principled opposition to the beauty contest makes her outshine regional Arab regimes who in recent years have been falling over each other to dump the Palestinian people's advocacy, and ink plushy diplomatic-military deals with Israel.

For example, Arab leader-nations like Saudi Arabia, Morocco, or the UAE have all but in word thrown Palestinians under the bus and concluded "see-no-evil-speak-no-evil" diplomatic pacts with Israel.

In 2020, Arab-heavyweight, Saudi Arabia, has signalled a wish to upgrade ties with Israel and even proposed the idea of a covert four-nation military alliance involving Israel, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Bahrain. Not to be outdone, Morocco has gotten so cosy with Israel that direct flights between the two nations will take off this December. When in May, the UAE, Bahrain, Sudan, and Morocco silently, but loudly refused to rebuke Israel's bombing of the occupied territories, the Palestinians needed no clearer proof that they were now truly on their own. 

The voice of South Africa, from afar, battling for Palestinians legitimate rights, shames nearby Arab states. South Africa has a 72, 000 strong Jewish population. The Jewish lobby in South Africa, led by The Jewish Board of Deputies, is very vocal and financially influential. 47 of South Africa's 225 wealthiest citizens are Jewish.

So, for South Africa's government to publicly oppose the Miss Universe beauty contest in Israel is to risk the wrath of her influential Jewish business lobby. Little wonder the combative South Africa Zionist Federation lobby in South Africa lambasted South Africa's government as "cowardly and self-righteous."

Israel, like any other nation globally, hosts international beauty contests. But such cultural events are also a prism for invited nations like South Africa to showcase the indignity that Palestinians especially in Gaza endure in daily life.

"Beauty pageants in Israel, their contests' lipsticks, flower bouquets, lavish disco lights, and glitzy parties cannot hide the plight of Palestinian homes being crudely mowed down in Sheik Jarrah, to make way for Jewish settlers"

Beauty pageants in Israel, their contests' lipsticks, flower bouquets, lavish disco lights, and glitzy parties cannot hide the plight of Palestinian homes being crudely mowed down in Sheik Jarrah, to make way for Jewish settlers.

South Africa's boycotting of Miss Universe in Israel, though a small act of solidarity with Palestinians, would be a significant gesture to apply pressure on Israel until it reaches a fair and just peace deal with Palestinians.

Nyasha Bhobo is a journalist and human rights activist. Her work appears in Rest of World, Newsweek and Reuters.

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