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Culture : Beauty and the Beast of Apartheid in S. Africa : Amid the bathing-suit and talent contests, there is also bias. A black woman can win and yet lose the crown.

January 28, 1992|SCOTT KRAFT | TIMES STAFF WRITER

JOHANNESBURG, South Africa — The lights were dimmed, the audience held its breath and the master of ceremonies ripped open the envelope. On a card inside was the name of the new People's Miss Johannesburg--"Nani Mokoena!"

A crown was placed on the tall black model's head and photographers snapped pictures of her holding the keys to the Opel Kadette she had won. It was the happiest moment in 20-year-old Nani Mokoena's life.

But by the next day, her warm glow was gone. Pageant officials said there had been a misunderstanding. It seemed that the sponsors were happy to let black women compete for the crown, but they wanted a white woman to wear it.

The pageant was restaged two weeks later, and the judges knew just what to do. A blue-eyed blonde Afrikaner, Mokoena's runner-up the first time, got the crown, the car, the modeling contract and the free trip to Portugal.

That was 1990, but the memory was still fresh when Nani Mokoena and many other black women considered whether to enter the country's most prestigious pageant, Miss South Africa of 1991.

"Many of us thought about taking a chance," Mokoena said, "but why enter and then be made to feel ashamed of yourself?"

In a country with five times as many blacks as whites, only 50 of the 500 Miss South Africa 1991 contestants were black. And although the pageant has been open to all races since it began in 1954, there's never been a black winner.

As Mokoena expected, no blacks were even among the 12 finalists. The panel of nine judges (one of whom was black) chose a tall, blonde 22-year-old actress, Diana Tilden-Davis, as the new Miss South Africa.

The pageant generated only a murmur of disapproval among blacks when Tilden-Davis was crowned in August. But her appearance and third-place finish in the Miss World pageant last month, (South Africa previously had been ostracized from the international stage since 1977) has touched off an ugly debate here over beauty, racism and the legacy of apartheid.

Beauty contests are the latest front in the battle between whites and blacks for future control of South Africa.

Whites had enthusiastically applauded the invitation from the Miss World organizers, who turned away South Africa's entrant in London 14 years ago. Interest in South Africa was so high that the pageant finale in Atlanta last month was broadcast live nationwide here, at 4 a.m. South African time, and rerun that evening for viewers who missed it.

Top government officials, all of whom are white, said Miss South Africa's re-entry into world competition was yet another sign that their promises of reform were ending this country's long isolation. And Tilden-Davis even paused for tips from Foreign Minister Roelof F. (Pik) Botha, in a meeting recorded in full color in the local newspapers, before leaving for the United States.

But many blacks weren't so pleased to see the doors swinging open.

"All of a sudden, whites are feeling that absolutely everything is kosher," said Nokwanda Sithole, editor of the black-oriented Tribute Magazine. "They're comfortable that Diana Tilden-Davis is in the Miss World competition, even though she is absolutely not representative of this country."

While most blacks have welcomed President Frederik W. de Klerk's sweeping reform of segregation laws in South Africa and willingness to share power with blacks, they remain an oppressed majority, denied the vote and subjected to widespread poverty and homelessness.

"How we wish we could share in the joy of Miss South Africa," the black daily Sowetan newspaper, the country's largest, said in an editorial. "Sadly, her good performance (in the Miss World pageant) leaves many black South Africans cold."

The African National Congress, the country's largest black opposition group, had given its grudging OK to the Miss World invitation. But the ANC's women's league dissented, saying that the beauty industry "degrades and exploits women" and that "in our view the current white Miss South Africa does not represent the majority of our women."

"South Africa is very, very anxious to prove to the world that all is well here, but it is not true," said Baleka Kgotsitsele, of the ANC Women's League. "There are many things that are still the same, and these beauty pageants are proof of it."

But it was Tilden-Davis herself who ignited the controversy. During a trip by Miss World contestants to South Africa, Miss Nigeria innocently asked the South African queen why more blacks didn't compete for Miss South Africa.

According to Miss Nigeria, Tilden-Davis, whose sister won the crown in 1988, said it was because most black girls become pregnant by the time they are 15. (Miss South Africa contest rules stipulate that only unmarried, childless women under 24 may compete.)

After some weeks of silence, Tilden-Davis denied the remark. She admitted, however, that she had discussed the lack of black contestants in Miss South Africa with Miss Nigeria.

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