Zozibini Tunzi could spread the cow dung smoothly and evenly over the hut’s floor. Then she would clamber onto her gogo’s lap to see what book her granny was reading.
“She just always wanted to read, read, read, this grandchild, such a neat, diligent little girl on my lap,” remembers Cynthia Nadopu, her hand clutched close to her heart.
She sits like this the whole night, one hand against her heart, while the other hand delicately brings samp to her mouth. Every now and then she tuts, the plates of food only arrived well after 10pm, when the string of praise songs and speeches was over.
We’re sitting in a thatch-roofed hall in the hills, far too small for all the people packed into it, and the atmosphere is electric. First Tunzi is in tears, then she’s laughing, then Ma Philiswa has to help wipe away the tears again.
She sits with her back straight, chin raised, gracious, an African queen. Outside, it is raining lightly, from somewhere you can hear the cattle in the veld. And it takes a village to raise a child, and this village is here for their shining child tonight.
Gogo Nadopu leans over to me and says: “When Zozi turned seven, I gave her one of her first books, Madiba’s Long Walk to Freedom, because the child had hundreds of questions about it.”
Nelson Mandela’s walk began in the neighbouring village of Mvezo, in the Eastern Cape.
Tunzi’s own long walk led from that book, to New York, and to the Miss Universe crown.
“Now, nothing is the same as it was before, and this is just the beginning for her,” says her aunt Unathi, sitting next to me. “I wondered if the title and New York would change her, but not even a little bit, Zozi is still Zozi, as natural as her hair. And there’s another thing she is the reigning queen of: 30 seconds!”
The whole night, Tunzi flagship words during her Miss Universe campaign are repeated back to her. It becomes a mantra: “Nothing is as important as taking up space in society and then cementing yourself.”
These are words one could dismiss as mere pageant popcorn, but they became real on this rainy evening in Idutywa in the Eastern Cape, when five women stand up, one by one, to say to Tunzi: this is what we are doing with your words, this is how we are cementing our future.
Babalwa Mbuku, when she realised that girls from poor homes were missing school because they could not afford sanitary towels, started a factory that manufactures them.
Thembakazi Sikhundla couldn’t get a job, despite her Master’s degree. Then she started working a little plot of land, which became a farm. She used the income to buy marquis, tents and chairs for hire for village events. With the income from the new venture, she began buying clothing overseas and selling it on social media. Now, she owns a small clothing boutique in the busiest street of Port Elizabeth, the province’s busiest seaport.
The last one to stand up is Pumla Gobela, Tunzi’s neighbour and owner of Chef Mbuks Catering Services. We hear how Gobela’s life fell apart when she was raped by a teacher aged 16, forcing her to have an abortion. Her story even affects the stony-faced, Trump-supporting American bodyguard.
Sisi Pumla was her senior at school, Tunzi says the next morning. “She was beautiful and full of life. She is still. We won a reading competition together. I didn’t even know what happened to her, and that makes it even worse, because sometimes you only see the smile, and you know nothing about how much pain people are carrying around with them.
“I preach about the empowerment of women on Instagram and social media, and those are words from my heart, but I never know if they really ever touch anyone. And here come five women and say to me: we are living your words. I will be grateful for that for the rest of my life.”
As child, she was “incredibly shy”, explains Tunzi, and the load that she had to get off her shoulders was her own lack of self-confidence.
“Now I’m self-assured, but sometimes I lose it again and then I wonder: am I doing enough, and actually: am I enough?”
She chuckles at her own words, and it seems almost surreal that this beautiful woman with the satin Miss Universe sash around her shoulders is saying them.
We are sitting in a small room and the New York organiser of the competition is sitting in the doorway, listening suspiciously to every word, the photographer click-click-clicks, and the police escort that will accompany her to Mthatha airport are waiting outside with the gum-chewing bodyguards.
“You know,” Tunzi continues, “you feel like you’re not worth the title, when the imposter syndrome takes over, when people’s comments find a foothold in your subconscious.
“Every morning when I wake up, I say to myself: You are Miss Universe, and you deserve it, you worked hard for it.”
She is sitting with a straight back, excellent posture, always.
Earlier, while she was standing bare-armed among hundreds of schoolchildren taking selfies in the rain, a cameraperson who has been following her the Miss SA days says: “Her 16-hour days make me tired. I don’t know how she stays so patient, and still remains so genuine, so authentic. She’s the real deal.”
Tunzi has always been a woman who panicked about everything, laughs, Khaya, her best friend. “So diligent, but she was always forgetting her school jersey, her stuff, all over the place.”
Everywhere Tunzi goes on her tour through the Eastern Cape, she is swarmed by near-hysterical children. The funniest, she says, was when she was on a float in Tsolo. It came around a corner and a group of screaming girls came running out of their houses to see her – still in their pyjamas and onesies.
At the Canaan Academy, her old primary school, she waves excitedly to the schoolchildren who come running, their uniforms red speckles against the green hills. “I used to wear a red uniform just like that,” she laughs elatedly.
In the school hall, among her old friends, it becomes a reunion. The headmaster is asking times tables again, what is two times two Zozibini? Nice, you get a handkerchief, you pass. The group of 2 000 sings along to I’m a soldier of the Lord and Tunzi salutes cheerfully.
The highlight, “although there were many!”, was Gogo Nadopu who came from East London for the function.
“She is old and tired now, but it would have broken my heart if I’d had to go back to New York without seeing her.
“She managed to raise her children with ‘kitchen money’. And when her job as a domestic worker was not enough, she learnt how to make clothes she could sell, so she could get her children through university.
“That’s why I say, this title is not mine, it belongs to all of us.”
The books of Steve Biko, the black consciousness activist murdered by the apartheid regime, helped form Tunzi’s life. “He has been gone for a long time, but his books remain incredible. To be able to read his own words.
“I grew up isolated, and the first time that I left the Eastern Cape was when I went to study in Cape Town. But I was so influenced by the people that I had ‘met’ in books that I knew I wanted to do the same kinds of wonderful things one day.
“And that’s why I eventually entered Miss SA. Many South Africans worked hard after 1994 to try and create financial security for their families. That’s what I want to do now for the generations that come after me.”
Tunzi sent her entry form the day before the competition closed. And that’s when it all came together – the years of spelling competitions, public debating, Miss Canaan Academy [I have no rhythm].
“My mother thought that I might need all of this stuff one day, that it might be useful eventually.”
Margaret Kyambaade, her primary school principal, remembers how Tunzi saw which children were struggling during reading lessons. She then borrowed them books to help them after school.
The one thing Tunzi wants to accomplish as Miss Universe, “is to make people realise that is okay to be themselves, that you don’t have to fit into a mould to be like other people or allow the community to prescribe how you should be in order to be successful. What is success anyway.
“There’s so much pretence in the world, but if we are authentic, we are at our happiest.”
Her natural hair has become the crown under her Miss Universe crown. “I have nothing against braids and hair extensions, a woman can do what she wants to with her body. I just wanted to get away from the hours of pulling and braiding, and now I’m crazy about my natural hair. I’ve never felt more beautiful.”
But it was quite a challenge, she says, the negative reactions to her appearance, even if it was from a minority.
Yes, it was said that she “downgraded” the Miss Universe title. “I understand that, I probably look different to what society’s expectation of beauty is. That might be why so many people reacted negatively. In fact, it’s years of programming.
“This morning, when I was standing among the Grade Rs at the school ... they are so small, everything still lies ahead. This is for them,” she touches the sash. “When they look at me, they have to see themselves in me. And then they must know that there is hope.
“It’s strange, I’ve been more emotional over the past few days than I have been in the whole past two months as Miss Universe.”
And then the Miss Universe handler says it’s over and out. They have to get lipstick on Tunzi’s lips and make sure the “crying is out of her eyes”, it’s time for the TV cameras.
Tunzi wiggles her body slightly, lifts her chin, and it’s three-two-one rolling, and she is queen of the universe.
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