The Miss Cultural South Africa pageant put a peculiar spin on national unity, writes Rebecca Davis.
With the scars from Miss South Africa still fresh, I found myself sitting down in front of Miss Cultural South Africa 2015 with some reluctance. And yet I was also intrigued. What is Miss Cultural South Africa? If Miss South Africa and Miss Cultural South Africa had to meet, would the latter just sing and dance the whole time while the former rolled her eyes and adjusted her sash?
These are, of course, questions from an ignorant umlungu. There are no white, or coloured, or Indian contestants in Miss Cultural South Africa. That is not because these communities lack culture – white South Africans, for instance, have a rich culture of braaiing and swimming and complaining in bank queues – but because the contestants in Miss Cultural South Africa each represent one of the “12 kingdoms”. This made the event sound excitingly like something from Game of Thrones, but nobody died, although there was quite a lot of flesh on display.
It wasn’t as glitzy as Miss South Africa, but it was a lot more energetic. The event took place at Moses Mabhida stadium in KwaZulu-Natal. At one point it started raining. The KhoiSan representatives looked extremely cold.
The contestants in Miss Cultural South Africa were expected to work a lot harder than those Miss South Africa finalists
The MC for the night was poet and storyteller Gcina Mhlope, who is so good at what she does that she could make the reading of a recipe for butternut soup sound enthralling. The panel of judges, Mhlope informed the audience, would be assessing how the 12 young women represented “not only themselves, but their own culture”. This seemed quite vague, but what do I know?
The contestants in Miss Cultural South Africa were expected to work a lot harder than those Miss South Africa finalists. They had to sing. They had to lead their own people in dance. They had to tell stories around a fire. They had to answer questions.
Some of the questions they were asked were standard pageant fare, like “If you were president, what would be the first thing you would do?” One replied: “I would construct a big mine here in South Africa, which will help.” I think they tried that already.
Other questions, however, were more specific. “Who was Queen Modjadji, and what was she famous for?” Can you imagine Miss South Africa finalists getting quizzed on historical figures? I also liked the question: “Should we have Men’s Day, and why?” The Tsonga representative felt there should indeed be a day on which men could meet “so that they can teach each other how to behave”. Right on, sister.
One aspect the competition surpassed Miss South Africa in doing was hammering home the idea of these young women’s sexual purity. From the kingdom of the Ndebele, Thobile Chili was introduced by her male chaperone/praise singer as being “like a jar of jam to be opened by those who bought it”. Zulu representative Nomkhosi Nzuza was asked how she would hypothetically rebuff her boyfriend’s request for sex. “I’ve done the virginity test,” she replied.
At the end, Arts & Culture Minister Nathi Mthethwa said the organisers were working to “unite all our people”, which seemed odd given that the contest specifically pits one ethnic identity against another. “I am a real Venda!” Madavha Nkhetheni cried. “I am pure Xhosa!” said Zethu Matiwane proudly.
I’m not saying that the judges were influenced by the fact that it all took place in KZN, but you’d have been mad to bet against the Zulu representative winning. “You can see how beautiful I am,” Nzuza had told the crowd earlier. Indeed we could.