- Miss South Africa, Lalela Mswane arrived back in South Africa on Wednesday after participating in the Miss Universe pageant in Israel, where she took the third spot.
- Speaking at a press conference, the 24-year-old held back tears as she addressed the backlash she received for her decision to participate in the competition.
- "Sometimes, I question if whether going was even the correct choice. Just because when I made that decision, it no longer became about me but the safety of my family and those I love," she said.
- Lalela's sights are now firmly set on continuing her reign as Miss South Africa.
There was a buzz in the air at the O.R. Tambo airport's international arrivals gate on Wednesday. Fans gathered as Miss South Africa, Lalela Mswane returned to the country after competing at the Miss Universe pageant in Israel, where she took the third spot.
But while some were happy to watch the beauty queen walk through the airport doors, singing with excitement, others gathered in protest, chanting: "Free Palestine!"
Lalela's decision to partake in the Miss Universe competition came with a lot of backlash, with calls for the 24-year-old to boycott the pageant after Israel, which is accused of committing atrocities against Palestine, was announced as the host country.
The Department of Sport, Art and Culture subsequently withdrew its support for Miss South Africa after failing to convince the organisation not to compete in the pageant.
"Following unsuccessful consultations initiated by the Ministry of Sport, Arts and Culture, it has proven difficult to persuade the Miss SA pageant organisers to reconsider their decision to partake in the Miss Universe event scheduled to be held in Israel during the month of December 2021," the statement from the department read.
Speaking at a press conference on Wednesday, a teary Lalela said she was in "despair" and "thoroughly disappointed" when the statement from government was first released.
"I felt abandoned. I also felt a bit of anger because I don't know what I had done so wrong," she said, her answer filled with emotion.
"I'll never comprehend what I did to make people feel justified in their actions. You don't have to be for me, but you don't have to be against me. You don't have to, certainly, wish death upon me because I made a choice. I never initiated any war. This is way bigger than me. All I did was just pursue a dream of mine."
Before taking questions from the media, Lalela read a message she had prepared.
The beauty queen admitted she "always knew that being Miss South Africa wasn't going to be smooth sailing" but says she didn't "expect baptism with fire".
"I was somewhere in between. I was hoping for the best, but also just expectant of every bad thing, and I feel like I got every bad thing that became one of the most beautiful things that could ever happen to me," she said, describing her Miss Universe journey as "extremely enriching".
Getting choked up midway through, she recalled the death threats she received from those against her decision to participate in the pageant.
"Sometimes, I question if whether going was even the correct choice. Just because when I made that decision, it no longer became about me but the safety of my family and those I love. And to receive death threats, to not be able to sleep, I don't think I even prepared for this competition, so for me, being third is the biggest win I could have ever achieved, and I'm extremely proud of myself," she told the small group of media who gathered at the conference.
"I've always said that I carry the hopes of so many young girls in South Africa. And I hope that my actions have inspired you to choose courage over comfort every chance that you get."
Still, Lalela said she would go through it all again if she had to. "Purely because I'm a firm believer in not succumbing to pressure. I would have regretted it for the rest of my life. I'm not in the wrong. I have a responsibility to my people, yes. But I will not be bullied into making any sort of decision.
"And also, I was of the view that I'm being attacked because I failed to pick a side as a sign of loyalty. That's very immature, unnecessary, and it wouldn't get us anywhere. Imagine I hadn't gone; what would have happened? It wouldn't serve anyone. So I'd definitely do it again," she said.
For now, Lalela has her sights firmly set on her reign as Miss South Africa. Her goal is to launch her campaign, tackling unemployment in the country. As a start, she has pledged 10% of her Miss South Africa winnings to her cause.
"I've always described myself as a tenacious person, but I didn't know how much. And I realised if you want me to succeed, tell me I shouldn't, or I can't do something. And I think that relentless spirit will serve me well in my position as Miss South Africa," she said, adding: "Because I really feel like I have a sense of being fearless. Like, I'm crying now, but I just think it's human. I'm a human, after all, I've got emotions, but I'm so steadfast. I feel like, as a leader, you need to be able to stand for something, even if it means standing alone or with very few people."