OPINION | Wendy Kahn: Rather engage than boycott Miss Universe

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Miss South Africa 2021 Lalela Mswane.
Miss South Africa 2021 Lalela Mswane.
Photo: Supplied by Miss South Africa

Countries that have their own complex relationship with Israel are allowing their representatives to take part in the Miss Universe, which shows just how out of touch the South African government is when it comes to Israel, writes Wendy Kahn.


There is a worrying trend developing in our country, which sees rational discussion and opinion on issues relating to Israel and Palestine descend into politicking, bullying and even violent rhetoric. 

In 2018, DJ Black Coffee performed in Israel, joining hundreds of prominent musicians worldwide to play in the Jewish State. He came under a barrage of criticism for this choice, bullying that was hypocritical and counterproductive. Israel is a destination outside of the Covid-19 pandemic, to which thousands of South Africans travel each year for numerous reasons.  

Now it's the turn of Miss South Africa, Lalela Mswane. To a hammer, everything looks like a nail. 

However, there are worrying differences in the dilemma facing Lalela, as the stakes are high and the pressure on her is increasing.

Threats 

This is a once in a lifetime opportunity for a young woman, and just the start of a stellar career on the global stage. Yet the pressure against her, well-orchestrated and stemming from the same quarters who wished to silence Black Coffee, is becoming threatening. Every propagandist tactic is being used against her, including death threats. This is not, as one commentator on radio suggested, expressing an opinion. It is abusive and criminal behaviour. In a country plagued by another disease, gender-based violence, this public intimidation and mistreatment of a young woman is especially deplorable. It should be called out and condemned. Of course, you are allowed to express an opinion. Yet, seemingly, when the country of discussion is Israel, there are no limits to how badly one can behave.  

This behaviour is out of sync with what is happening around the world. In fact, the region's geo-politics are changing so quickly that, following the historic Abraham Accords brokered last year, Israel now has warm diplomatic and economic ties with many Arab and Muslim states, one of which, the United Arab Emirates, is making its debut at this pageant. Morroco, who hasn't competed since 1978, is returning. Turkey will be there, as will most of the BRICs countries (Brazil, India and China will be there). Indeed, 77 countries are attending. Each of these countries has its own complicated relationship with Israel, yet not one is boycotting the event. This shows how deeply out of touch the South African government is in the way it deals with Israel.

READ | Saturday Profile: New Miss SA Lalela Mmswane: 'I had to prove to myself that I am worthy'

Lalela Mswane is representing South Africa. Much has been made of this point, for those arguing that she shouldn't go. But why?  While the South African government has chosen a specific side in this conflict, it still maintains diplomatic ties with Israel.

Even at the height of the last war, DIRCO Minister Naledi Pandor said, "South Africa is not committing to cutting ties with Israel". Our Embassy in Israel is open for business, as is the Israel Embassy in South Africa. Even in the face of the current storm, Dirco spokesperson Clayton Monyela said, on the question of cutting ties with Israel, "We can't do that because if we do that, it means we can't engage Israel so are excluding ourselves from being part of the solution to the conflict, because if you cut ties with a country, they don't have to engage with you".

After all, if you would like to have any say in a conflict, the best way to do so is to engage rather than boycott. This, is, after all, the South African way. Lalela's participation in this event allows her to have a voice. Silencing her and preventing her trip will in no way solve the conflict. All it will do is crush a young woman's dreams. And it is this point that ordinary South Africans are protesting against. They are acutely aware and angry about our government's hypocrisy and double standards in its treatment of Lalela. Ordinary South Africans are not taking this lightly. They are using whatever avenue they have available to make their voices heard. 

Support for Lalela  

Parallel to the calls by the government and the BDS movement, ordinary South Africans have called on them to let Lalela go. A poll conducted by Newzroom Afrika last Thursday on whether Miss SA should withdraw from the Miss Universe event in Israel showed a plurality of nearly 2:1 in favour of her competing.

Another poll, this time from SABC, came out with similar and overwhelming results in favour of Lalela going to Israel. The Palestinian Solidarity Association protest attracted a bare handful of activists. Social media has been ablaze with commentary, with Facebook groups supporting Lalela to Twitter threads expressing upset at the government's handling of the issue and urging Lalela to travel to Israel.

Posts by ordinary South Africans have ranged from asking why our government doesn't speak out against China's recent treatment of African residents in certain cities, expelling them from their homes as scapegoats for the spread of the Corona virus, to our lack of solidarity with the people of Zimbabwe and zero condemnation the human rights abuses taking place there. 

"I have never seen such hypocrites as ANC members, where is your solidarity with the people of Swaziland who are continually killed by the Monarch!! said one Facebook comment by Fanelo Maseko.

"This girl should be left alone to make her own decisions", said Twitter user Tsitso09.

"This is a violation of Lalela's human rights", said Ncamisile Ngubane on Facebook, "She deserves to choose, and she deserves to have a government that supports her … this is a dark day for South Africa".

READ | Howard Feldman: The worst thing about government withdrawing its support from Miss SA

We have seen a groundswell of support from the South African in the street, cutting across communities, for Lalela to participate in the contest. What has been made clear in recent weeks is that the BDS-movement and indeed our own Minister of Sports, Arts and Culture, who neglected starving artists as lockdown hit and funds designated for them were looted, do not speak for the average South African.

The Minister has shown more interest in preventing this young woman from participating in an international event than he did in saving our heritage sites such as the Apartheid Museum and Lilliesleaf farm.

People are coming out in support of Lalela going not because they particularly care about Israel or Palestine, but because they want her to have the opportunity to represent us in an international arena. They see through the politicking. In the words of the famous Survivor series, "the tribe has spoken". 

I have no doubt that Lalela will weather this storm and emerge even stronger and more determined to make positive changes in our country and the world. As they say, you can't keep a good woman down.

- Wendy Kahn is the National Director of the South African Jewish Board of Deputies 

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