The Miss South Africa pageant recently announced that it would now accept entries from married women, women with children and those with visible tattoos and piercings.
I’m not an avid follower of the pageant, as my feminist views are at odds with it, but this news did catch my attention as I thought it was absurd, especially in 2023.
Established in 1956, the pageant was only open to white people, which is interesting considering that South Africa has a majority black population.
Since then, Miss South Africa has undergone many changes in what would seem to be efforts to be more inclusive. For me, one of the most significant was opening up the pageant to people of all races in 1977.
However, it took 16 years for a black Miss South Africa to be crowned.
I remember that moment so well, watching it in my grandparents’ living room while the whole family erupted in jubilation at the announcement of Jacqui Mofokeng as Miss South Africa 1993. Her crowning was just months before South Africa became a constitutional democracy and elected its first black president.
Read more in Daily Maverick: Miss SA’s crown of thorns
That meant that all activities in the country were to take place on a non-discriminatory basis, as highlighted in Chapter 2 of the Constitution.
The pageant received little scrutiny because it was now open to women of all races. However, discrimination persisted, such as European standards of physical beauty and being disqualified if you had a partner or a child, which I suppose would deem you undesirable to the male gaze. Pageants are historically based on a sexist and patriarchal agenda that saw women objectified and aspiring to a near-impossible standard of beauty.
In later years pageants appear to have evolved to include education and some measure of social awareness, but physical beauty remains front and centre.
In an article in The Conversation, Amanda Gouws, professor of political science and chair of the South African Research Initiative in Gender Politics at Stellenbosch University, said: “This objectification of women’s beauty measured by competitive processes, linked specifically to the body, strengthens patriarchal norms rather than erodes them, whether women have agency or not.”
This calls into question the relevance of women still seeking validation and competing on their physical attributes and ability to appeal to the male gaze.
And so my questions are: is the latest announcement by the Miss South Africa pageant a genuine attempt to evolve and be more inclusive and representative? Or is it a last-ditch attempt to keep alive an anachronistic institution that no longer has a space in our current reality?
Before the announcement was made, the CEO of the pageant, Stephanie Weil, said on social media as people grew impatient about the opening of entries: “I know that it is really exciting that we are launching Miss South Africa 2023 entries, and I am so excited to launch it with you. It is coming soon.
“Just note that we are doing something so big, so revolutionary, that we need a little more time.”
Personally, I remain unconvinced that this latest announcement is revolutionary in 2023. DM168
This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper, which is available countrywide for R29.