Miss South Africa, Lalela Mswane, is being bullied for nakedly partisan political purposes, and on grounds that aren’t supported by the facts. Good on her for standing up, even against her own government.
It isn’t hard to see why Lalela Mswane won the Miss South Africa crown. A law graduate, she is smart, poised, and strikingly beautiful.
On her way to the crown, she opened up about how she once was bullied at school for being too ‘tall, gangly, and thin’. She now hopes to instil the lessons she learnt about self-confidence, optimism, determination, hope and bravery in people who look up to her. She really does appear to be a lovely person.
When she was announced as a candidate in the annual Miss Universe contest, she was over the moon.
On the same day, however, Nkosi Zwelivelile Mandla Mandela, grandson of the former president, posted a statement to Instagram calling upon all Miss Universe contestants, including Mswane, to withdraw from the pageant to protest its venue: the resort town of Eilat, Israel.
‘Israel is an Apartheid State and we will continue to mobilise all freedom loving people of the world to boycott, divest and pass sanctions against the brutal Apartheid regime,’ the statement read. ‘We must persist in isolating Apartheid Israel in the same way that we isolated Apartheid South Africa.’
He further called ‘on all countries to bolster their efforts to isolate Apartheid Israel and cut all ties be it trade, culture, sport, recreation or diplomatic’.
The event, Mandela argued, ‘normalises the Apartheid Israel daily killing, bulldozing of homes and orchards and maiming young and innocent children’.
The language, emotive and accusatory and wildly exaggerated, is straight out of the playbook of Boycott, Disinvest, Sanction (BDS), a radical Palestinian lobby group that some (rightly, in my opinion) view as inherently anti-Semitic and reminiscent of the Nazi boycott of Jewish goods and services in the 1930.
In a tacit admission that it had lied, Africa4Palestine joined a protest against Mswane’s participation several days later, making the specious argument that because the South African government has a chilly relationship with Israel, private organisations were also duty bound to boycott it.
Then the government piled on.
The Department of Sport, Art, and Culture (a department that does exceptionally little, and has no business existing in the first place) announced that it would ‘withdraw its support’ for the Miss South Africa pageant, because of the organisers’ ‘intransigence and disregard’ of the department’s advice to withdraw.
To bully young women to give up their life-long dreams in pursuit of a narrow, partisan political agenda is cruel and distasteful.
Sport, Arts, and Culture Minister, Nathi Mthethwa, even had the temerity to pretend that his concern was for Mswane herself: ‘If anything, by withdrawing, Miss South Africa’s reputation and overall standing will be far more advanced in South Africa and internationally in comparison to a once-off event that can prove disastrous to her future and public standing as a young, black woman.’
In an online survey conducted by Dear South Africa (whose samples admittedly skew strongly towards those with the time, resources, and motivation to complete online surveys), 90% of almost 10 000 respondents opposed the government’s decision to withdraw support from Miss SA. Similar numbers opposed boycotting Miss Universe, and opposed government interference in, and politicisation of, sports, art, and cultural events.
Mswane shrugged off the bullying, released a lovely statement (on Instagram, of course), and flew to Israel with a special Covid-19 travel ban waiver.
That radical pro-Palestine organisations would try to leverage an event such as Miss Universe for propaganda purposes should surprise nobody. That the South African government took such a hard-line stance, however, is more surprising.
Although the government, under ANC control, is far from friendly towards Israel and frequently expresses solidarity with the Palestinian cause, its official position is that it supports a negotiated settlement towards a two-state solution for the region.
South Africa is one of 164 (out of 193) United Nations members that fully recognises the state of Israel. It has not cut relations with Israel and has not formally called for sanctions against Israel.
For this reason, the South African government’s ‘advice’ to Mswane and the Miss South Africa organisation to boycott Israel by withdrawing from Miss Universe was misplaced, and its withdrawal of support unjustified.
South Africa did withdraw its ambassador from Israel in May 2018 in a fit of pique about what it described as an ‘act of violent aggression carried out by Israeli armed forces along the Gaza border’, in which it alleges 40 ‘civilians’ were killed.
It had nothing to say about the 70 rockets that were fired at Israeli civilians from within Gaza in that same month, or the hundreds of rockets aimed at Israel in the same year.
In short, it has taken sides in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which – as the IRR explained a fortnight ago – conflicts with its stated goal of a negotiated two-state solution.
Mandla Mandela, and the pro-Palestinian activists, all argue that Israel is an ‘Apartheid State’. This is nothing but propaganda, however. It minimises and disrespects those who fought against Apartheid.
Unlike in South Africa, Israel has no racial discrimination laws on its books. Within its borders, it treats people of all races and ethnicities equally. All citizens, whether Jewish or Arab, have equal democratic rights, and an Arab-Israeli party, the United Arab List, is part of the present governing coalition.
Israel’s position towards the so-called ‘occupied territories’ of the West Bank and Gaza is not one of racial separation, but one of simple self-defence. Like any other country, it is entitled to protect its borders against invasion.
Gaza alone, in 2021, hosts an arsenal of 30 000 rockets that can reach all or most of Israel’s major cities. They are all under the control of a Hamas government which is sworn to Israel’s destruction, just as the Palestine Liberation Organisation under Yasser Arafat once was.
Gaza and the West Bank are not Israeli-designated ‘homelands’ for Palestinian Arabs. They are foreign territories occupied in defensive wars, in which all of Israel’s neighbours attacked it.
It is populated by people who were Israel’s sworn enemies in war, and many of whom still seek to destroy it, whether by violent incursions or the simple demographic calculus of mass invasion.
Since the turn of the century, Palestinian militants have launched thousands of rocket and mortar attacks on Israeli civilians from the Gaza Strip. Many were launched from behind civilian human shields, or from schools and hospitals.
This is why Israeli retaliation sometimes ends up killing civilians: not because the civilians are targeted, but because they, willingly or unwillingly, shield military targets. The vast majority of civilian deaths in the Gaza Strip ought properly to be laid at the door of Hamas, not Israel.
These Palestinian attacks have been denounced as terrorism by the United Nations, the European Union, and the United States, and are considered war crimes by human rights groups like Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch.
Yet the South African government is utterly silent on them, while taking every opportunity to condemn Israeli actions.
Israel is not ‘oppressing’ Palestinians because it is an ‘Apartheid State’. Palestinians are not innocent victims in all this. The reality has nothing in common with Apartheid. Palestinian actions are those of a hostile and violent enemy, and Israel’s actions are those of a country besieged and fighting for survival.
Cold War bloc
It is easy to forget that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was borne out of a long history of aggression against Israel, and more broadly, against the Jewish people.
It is easy to forget that Palestinian Arabs and German Nazis at one time said they had a common cause against ‘International Jewry’, and Arab leaders like the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, Amin al-Husseini, had appealed to world governments to prevent Jews from moving to Palestine and send them to Nazi concentration camps instead.
It is easy to forget that the Israeli-Arab conflict was a proxy war between the West and the East, that the Soviet Union supported the Arab countries arrayed against Israel in successive wars, and that the Cold War allies of the Soviet Union still form a bloc of opposition to Israel to this day.
Witness the support for another recent Miss South Africa protest organised by Africa4Palestine: ‘ANC, EFF, NFP, SACP, Al-Jamah (sic) party, ANC Youth League, ANC Women’s League, Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU), Congress of South African Students (Cosas), Young Community League of South Africa (sic) (YCL SA), Young Hearts 4 Palestine, Youth 4 Palestine, Swaziland Solidarity Network (SSN), Muslim Youth Movement – Venda, Media Review Network (MRN), Friends of Cuba Society (FOCUS), KZN PSF, Embassy of Palestine and the Royal House of Mandela at Mvezo’.
That list could have come straight from a Cold War-era propaganda leaflet. It aligns formerly Soviet-supported groups, including Arab countries surrounding Israel and revolutionary post-liberation movements around the world, against a tiny liberal democracy supported by the West. (Speaking of bullying.)
Of course, blood spatters both ways in any conflict. Israel is not entirely blameless in the ongoing conflict. Liberal Zionists oppose the so-called ‘right of return’ by which millions of supposedly displaced Palestinians could occupy Israel, gain full democratic rights, and thereby destroy Israel from the inside as a refuge for Jewish self-determination. However, they also oppose the Israeli settlement-building in Palestinian territories that is supported by hard-line right-wingers.
In any negotiated two-state peace plan, those Israeli settlements will have to go.
The more important realisation, however, is that Israel cannot be caricatured simply as some sort of right-wing state bent on oppressing Palestinians. It is the only liberal democratic country in the Levant, with a diverse society and a pluralistic multi-party government which includes significant representation of liberal parties and even green-left social democrats.
The Israeli-Arab conflict of the past, and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict of the present, are complex, and do not merit the knee-jerk partisanship of the South African government. The path to a long-term two-state solution goes through Israel.
‘Boycotts seldom work, but rather forego the opportunity of creating conversations to help build bridges,’ he wrote. ‘The upcoming Miss Universe pageant provides an excellent opportunity to preach peace between Israel and Palestine on the international stage. Why should we keep quiet when we have a choice of speaking?’
Dialogue and peace
Mswane wrote: ‘I view my participation in the pageant as a unique opportunity … to be part of, and hopefully contribute to, a process of dialogue and peace.’
That is already a more sophisticated position than anyone has a right to demand of a 24-year-old pageant winner eager to represent her country on the international stage. It is certainly more sophisticated than the partisan view of Nathi Mthethwa and the anti-Israel activists to whose drum he dances.
Let’s commend Lalela Mswane for standing up to her bullies, hope she has the most wonderful time in Eilat, and wish her the best of luck in her campaign to bring the Miss Universe title back to South Africa on 12 December 2021.
The views of the writer are not necessarily the views of the Daily Friend or the IRR
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