JOHANNESBURG, South Africa – “If I have to be the sacrificial lamb for people to call me ugly or whatever it is that they want to call me, it’s fine because then I open a gate for people who are different – like me – who want to be in spaces where they have been told they don’t belong.”
This is what Miss South Africa 2019 Zozibini Tunzi has had to endure since she was first crowned at the pageant that took place on Women’s Day in August. She spoke to say on the sidelines of Lead SA’s Changemakers Conference over the weekend, and with just two months of reign under her belt, she has had to endure cyberbully and colourism from people around the world.
“I would get comments every time I post [on Instagram]. I once posted a photo outside my apartment – it was a very nice dark image of Johannesburg. ‘This picture is so black just like you Miss black South Africa’ [was a comment I received]. Comments like ‘why is this man representing South Africa in the competition’,” the 26-year-old B-Tech student said.
But she didn’t have to fend off ignorance and bigotry from international people alone. South Africans – men and women – also felt the need for the crowned Miss South Africa to adhere to Western prescriptions of beauty.
“I got comments like ‘she’s so underwhelming’ from South Africans as well, South African women and South African men saying ‘we could’ve done better’, ‘why her, she’s so basic’,” she said.
In a country like South Africa, it’s difficult to imagine that dark-skinned people with natural hair would be a far cry from “the norm”. But skin lighteners are still popular among South African women and so is the use of hair straightening chemicals and procedures.
According to the Professional Hair Care Market SA 2019 Report, the South African haircare market was forecasted to reach a value of about R7.3 billion (US $496.64 million to be exact) by 2024.
“The natural trend in the South African ethnic hair care segment is on the rise. This is mainly because a large portion of ethnic consumers is moving away from harsh chemical relaxers in favour of less invasive products to manage their curls,” the international organisation Mordor Intelligence said in its report.
While black women are free to choose if they want their hair kinky or straight and their skin tones light or dark – they don’t always have the support of the public when they make these decisions for themselves – not even Miss South Africa.
“It was crazy at first. Colourism and racism is a real thing going into the competition – I knew I would shake the table. I knew I would be the unconventional Miss South Africa to have won because no one has ever won with their hair or whatever, looking like I do.”
Tunzi said one of the reasons why she entered the competition was to challenge beauty stereotypes and showcase South Africa’s variety in looks. She also thinks people struggle with seeing themselves during their downtime, opting to rather escape reality.
“Some people use pageantry and beauty as escapism, so to see someone who looks like them – they don’t want to see that. They want to see perfection. So people are so uncomfortable with change, once it became too real for them, they started acting out,” she said.
While Tunzi continues to push the envelope, it’s easy to see why she calls double Olympic gold medallist and world 800m champion Caster Semenya – currently facing her own battles around what a typical black woman should look like – her role model.
There’s a little over a month left before the Miss Universe pageant in Atlanta, United States. The most exciting part for Tunzi? It will be held at actor, director and producer Tyler Perry’s new swanky studios. Perry is also someone Tunzi looks up to.
“[Perry is] another black man who is doing it, not only for himself but for all of us. We see ourselves in him, we see ourselves in his story. So for me, to be able to walk there, it means absolutely everything to me. I cannot wait to do it.”
Being unrelenting with her choices has meant she can finally take the fight against old fashioned notions of beauty to the global stage. Social media has already submitted predictions for this year’s Miss Universe winner, with Tunzi being named among the top five finalists. So things are getting better, said the global contestant.
“It started changing slowly. People are like, ‘hey, maybe I can do it too, then. Maybe I can wake up and just rock my hair and be okay and feel beautiful and feel accepted’,” she said. “I am so excited about it, I feel like it’s our time. Whether or not I win. I feel like me setting step there, looking the way I look, being the way that I am, with the message I have, means a lot to us. Just by that, I would’ve won already.”
Tunzi continues to break boundaries and embrace what it means being an African woman. She posed in a beautiful emerald green rapper for her profile for Miss Universe – something we’ve never seen a contestant do before.