When Jacqui Mofokeng was crowned the first black Miss South Africa in 1993, the race debate exploded. Lesley Mofokeng traces the former beauty queen to her home in New Jersey 21 years later for this exclusive interview
There was a lot for white South Africans to absorb in 1993: constitutional talks, integrated schools, new competition as jobs and universities formerly restricted to whites opened up to all races.
But perhaps nothing shocked white conservatives quite as much as the choice of a young, black, Soweto woman as Miss South Africa.
When the title went to 21-year-old Jacqui Palesa Mofokeng, a BCom student at the University of the Witwatersrand, it highlighted the absurdity of sending two representatives to international beauty pageants?–?Miss South Africa (white) and Miss Africa South (black).
Mofokeng’s reign was a symbol of transformation.
In a society going through rebirth, she challenged stereotypes and stepped into an unbeauty queen-like battleground. And it was ugly. White callers to radio stations called her win a “blackwashing”. The Sowetan denounced the “bigots who have made Jacqui’s life hell”.
Mofokeng, now 42, left South Africa 11 years ago to move to the US, where she found love. She now lives in New Jersey with her American husband, she prefers to keep out of the spotlight.
In her first interview in 10 years, she speaks to Lesley Mofokeng about Mandela, motherhood and how she loves being out of the limelight?–?so much so she would not let us take her photograph, but sent one of her own instead. We are thankful for small mercies…
How did it feel the moment you were announced as Miss SA?
It was mind-blowing. I have heard people talk about seeing stars. On that day, I actually saw them and I was blinded for a moment. If you watch the show, you will see me staggering. That was a God moment for me and I didn’t know it. But now I know.
How did you feel about the race controversy that followed?
It should not have been a surprise. I disturbed – destroyed – the status quo of how beauty was defined by the previous establishment. This was a blow to the system. But being naive, I was taken by surprise and there were times that it hurt?... badly ... but that did not stop me from being who I am.
I remember a visit to the Chamber of Commerce in the then Orange Free State. I was invited to a breakfast there in Bloemfontein. The initial reaction towards me was very cold. I sensed that everyone who was white and Afrikaans was testing, trying to make sense of me. I felt like a fish in a bowl.
However, by the time I left, all faces were smiles and most of the people in that room gave me hugs. I guess that is one of the reasons I became Miss South Africa, to have the racial stigma broken so that we can all see each other as people who live in South Africa together, not as enemies.
You had a close relationship with Nelson Mandela during your reign. Tell us about it.
On my return from that breakfast in Bloemfontein, I was driven to a building in Johannesburg and told there was a surprise for me. We went up a number of floors, the doors opened and there were Tata Nelson Mandela and Ntate Steve Tshwete standing facing me. I almost fell over. I am very seldom at a loss for words, but on this day, I was dumbfounded. It was only after Nelson Mandela walked up to me and touched me that I came out of my mini coma.
After he became president, he asked me to be on the board of trustees for the Nelson Mandela Children’s Fund. There were times he would call me on my cellphone, but I never got used to it. Every time he called, I would stop in my tracks and the whole world would stop.
What did you do after your reign?
I started a business called Jay-Emm Connections, an executive placement firm.
One day, while I was doing a charity event for the Nelson Mandela Children’s Fund, ANC representatives asked me to do an event for them. They had secured Tata Mandela for the fundraiser. It had to take place in 16 days and the target was to raise R1?million. We pulled it off. So, as result of that miracle, I opened the events management wing of Jay-Emm Connections.
I also did continuity presenting for the SABC3 for a couple of years. I consulted for a beauty magazine for a while and also sat on the board of directors of an IT company. I did all this while I was running my company. Then I left South Africa and got married. I now have two amazing children.
So you moved to the US for love. Where did you live?
We first lived in Arkansas, which is in the heart of the US, close to Mississippi and Texas. My husband was raised there. Our children were born there. Then, about five years ago, we moved east and settled in New Jersey, close enough to New York so that we could have the privilege of suburban life with a house and a yard while we were able to still enjoy all that New York has to offer.
We live in a suburb of New Jersey that is right across the Hudson River, near the George Washington Bridge. It literally takes me 10 minutes to get into NYC.
What do you do for a living?
I have been a stay-at-home mum. However, five years ago, I began to do research for a book about the Cross of Jesus. I have been analysing the Bible, and the books of ancient historians and others regarding the power and impact that the sacrificial obedience of Jesus unto the cross has had on history and on future events.
What is your typical day like?
It’s a marathon in the morning to bath my children, dress them, feed them, finish packing their lunchboxes and take them to school. This is a race I run five days a week with two children who don’t always make it smooth running. I’m not complaining because I have the blessing of children, but they are five- and seven-year-olds who, on many occasions, want their own way.
Then I spend a moment recovering from the morning’s events, listen to the word of God and have breakfast. I then make the beds, clean the house and take a shower before diving into my bibles, books and internet research.
At 2.30pm, I pick up the children from school, followed by a run-around at the park near our house. Then follows homework. Depending on the day of the week, this is followed by gymnastics for my son (7) and ballet for my daughter (5). There are also days when there are play dates. Somewhere around all this, I cook dinner. Then there is bath time and reading time before it’s time to brush teeth, say prayers and go to bed.
What do you tell your children about life in South Africa and do they know their mother was a Miss South Africa?
I share my Sesotho language and culture with my children and, yes, they know that their mother was Miss South Africa. After the death of Nelson Mandela, the library displayed children’s books about him. My daughter found Long Walk to Freedom in children’s format and we read it. We have since read another book about South Africa. I also tell them stories.
Are you now a naturalised American, or do you still have South African citizenship?
I will always have my South African citizenship. I am now a resident of the US and not a citizen.
Did you make a decision to stay away from the limelight?
It was a conscious decision and there has been such freedom in it. It has been bliss to mill about without being known, with no expectations of me.
What do you miss most about South Africa?
Is there a special dish you like to make that reminds you of South Africa?
Magwenya [fatcakes]. I love them.
What is your wish for SA as the country celebrates 20 years of democracy?
Freedom, peace and prosperity for all. It sounds like a beauty queen answer?...?I guess I am, but I mean it with absolute sincerity.
In an interview with British journalist John Carlin on the eve of Miss World, he told you Nelson Mandela said you’d make a great ambassador for South Africa. Do you see yourself in that light?
I will always be an unofficial ambassador for South Africa?–?as a South African living abroad. I love my country and I promote it in every country I visit.
In the same interview, you are quoted as saying: ‘I’m not saying I can change the world, but I am opening people’s minds.’ How have you fared with this?
I have learnt that words have great power. As human beings, we were created to be speaking spirits who speak life and blessings. I have met many people who mentioned things I had said which made an impact in their lives. I believe that the words which I believe enough to speak have the power to change the world and not only open people’s minds.