Last week, Miss SA 2015 Liesl Laurie handed over her title to Ntandoyenkosi Kunene, a 23-year-old education honours student from Mpumalanga, who was studying at Wits when she won the title.
Kunene’s reign begins at the same time as the pageant celebrates its golden jubilee, which has almost escaped notice.
The pageant has been around for a long time, but what does the lack of fanfare around this milestone mean, if anything, and how has the pageant adapted to changing times in the past 50 years?
The pageant’s organisers said of the glamorous show’s history:
“Two years after its official inception in 1956, Penny Coelen was crowned Miss South Africa in 1958 and she went on to become Miss World. Anneline Kriel became 1974’s Miss World at the age of 19 after the UK’s Helen Morgan resigned only four days after her victory.
“Rolene Strauss became South Africa’s third Miss World when she took the title in 2014.”
Due to sanctions, South Africa didn’t participate in the Miss World pageant from 1978 to 1990, but was readmitted in 1991.
However, it wasn’t until 1992 that a woman of colour won the title for the first time, when Amy Kleinhans was crowned Miss SA. The following year, Jacqui Mofokeng became the first black woman to wear the silk Miss SA sash and broke the glass ceiling for the likes of Peggy-Sue Khumalo, Basetsana Kumalo, Jo-Ann Strauss, Joan Ramagoshi and Kerishnie Naicker, who all represented the new hope of the so-called rainbow nation.
After 1994, the Miss SA pageant became part of South Africa’s “new” story, and provided young black girls and women with a new manner in which to imagine themselves, which was particularly important after nearly three decades of only having white women presented as Miss SA.
Another adjustment to the pageant has been slight amendments to the age at which someone could enter, which used to be 18 to 24. In 2012, this was changed to the 18 to 26 age group.
In an attempt to capture an increasingly younger audience, the Road to Miss SA reality show was added to the pageant in 2011.
About the reality series, the pageant’s organisers said: “Sun International made the decision not to continue with The Road to Miss South Africa in 2014 as it had achieved its goal in reintroducing the new-look Miss South Africa brand.”
In 2014, the pageant banned three finalists for having visible tattoos. The contestants were trying to break a long-standing anti-tattoo attitude. After this, questions were raised about what kind of ambassador a Miss SA should be, and whether the show was still representative of a very diverse and fast-changing South Africa.
As more options for young women have become available, at least in theory, pageants increasingly have to defend a concept premised on patriarchal ideas of what “good/worthy” women are like, especially ones from the 1950s.
The final 12 contestants are judged on various criteria, including their leadership qualities, communication skills, beauty and talent, physical fitness and a dedication to community service.
Viewership numbers show that pageants are still relevant. When Strauss was crowned Miss World in 2014 at the pageant’s final in London, an estimated 1 billion viewers worldwide watched the spectacle.