Miss South Africa Lalela Mswane spoke out publicly on Wednesday about efforts to have her boycott the Miss Universe competition in Israel and the death threats that kept her awake at night.
Mswane, 24, was surrounded by a large crowd of fans — as well as others who chanted “Free Palestine” — as she landed in South Africa’s O.R. Tambo International Airport on Wednesday, according to local media, returning home after placing third in the Dec. 12 pageant in Eilat.
South African supporters of the BDS movement against Israel had urged the beauty queen to withdraw from the competition, using hashtags including “#NotMyMissSouthAfrica.” South Africa’s Department of Sport, Art and Culture also said it would not support Mwane after failed attempts to convince her not to compete in the pageant.
At a press conference on Wednesday after arriving in her home country, Mwane admitted she felt in “despair” and “thoroughly disappointed” when the government made its announcement in November, South Africa’s Channel 24 reported.
“I felt abandoned. I also felt a bit of anger because I don’t know what I had done so wrong,” the teary-eyed beauty queen said. “I’ll never comprehend what I did to make people feel justified in their actions. You don’t have to be for me, but you don’t have to be against me. You don’t have to, certainly, wish death upon me because I made a choice. I never initiated any war. This is way bigger than me. All I did was just pursue a dream of mine.”
While reading a statement she prepared, the beauty queen said she knew representing South Africa “wasn’t going to be smooth sailing” but she did not expect “baptism with fire.”
“I was somewhere in between,” she explained. “I was hoping for the best, but also just expectant of every bad thing, and I feel like I got every bad thing that became one of the most beautiful things that could ever happen to me.”
Close to crying, she then recalled the death threats she received for participating in the Miss Universe pageant.
“Sometimes, I question if whether going was even the correct choice. Just because when I made that decision, it no longer became about me but the safety of my family and those I love,” she told members of the media. “And to receive death threats, to not be able to sleep, I don’t think I even prepared for this competition, so for me, being third is the biggest win I could have ever achieved, and I’m extremely proud of myself.
“I’ve always said that I carry the hopes of so many young girls in South Africa. And I hope that my actions have inspired you to choose courage over comfort every chance that you get.”
Mwane also described her Miss Universe journey as “extremely enriching.”