Using her hairstyle and social media platforms, Zozibini Tunzi is calling out racism and challenging perceptions of beauty
Johannesburg – When Zozibini Tunzi marched in the Black Lives Matter protests in New York City, the latest Miss Universe kept thinking how young people in her native South Africa died fighting for the same cause 44 years ago.
“South African students were marching against systemic racism,” said Tunzi, 26, recalling the 1976 Soweto Uprising when tens of thousands of students protested against apartheid laws that segregated and controlled the black majority.
“So many years later, that’s still happening, not only in South Africa, but across the world,” she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in an interview from New York, where she is spending her year as Miss Universe.
As one of only a handful of black women to have won the title, Tunzi was intending to use her influence to challenge racism, inequality and perceptions of beauty even before the Black Lives Matter protests erupted in the United States.
More than a quarter of a century after the end of apartheid – a system of segregation and white minority rule – South Africa is considered one of the most unequal countries in the world, according to the World Bank.
Tunzi grew up with four sisters in rural South Africa and started entering church beauty pageants aged about 6 because her mother thought it would help her make friends.
She said she was never a huge fan of the dresses and make-up, but she did like being asked for her opinions on the world.
“Women don’t get too many platforms to share their opinions and I thought: this is my opportunity to speak up, to say important things,” Tunzi said.
The coronavirus pandemic has limited what she can achieve, and she said that at times she had felt like her hands were tied.
But she is using her own social media accounts – she has 2.7 million Instagram followers – and those of Miss Universe to speak out.
It was a continuation of her ambitions when she first entered Miss South Africa in 2017 in hopes of gaining a platform for her views and because she was tired of not seeing women who looked like her represented in fashion magazines.
She was a semi-finalist that year, and took home the crown last year.
“I remember growing up … opening magazines and not recognizing myself and feeling like I’m not represented so I was like, I’m going to kill two birds with one stone,” she said.
Tunzi has won support for doing it wearing her natural hair and not giving in to pressure to wear a wig or weave.
“People have been talking about it ever since and I’m happy that it’s happening,” said Tunzi.
“But I do wish we can finally get to a place where, if a black woman arrives with natural hair, people don’t ask why. Because it looks like this, it grows out of my head, that’s why!”
Hair might seem a relatively trivial issue, but Tunzi recalled how in 2016, 13-year-old Zulaikha Patel led protests against a demand by her school that black students cut their natural afro hairstyles.
Her and her classmates’ protests led to a change in school policy.
“They weren’t just marching for hair,” said Tunzi. “They were marching to dismantle the system they were put against.”
(Reporting by Kim Harrisberg @KimHarrisberg; Editing by Claire Cozens.)