Ten-year-old Sitasati Fakude had already waited hours to see her idol. She had woken up at 5.30am, put on her pink, princess-style dress and gold tiara and climbed into her car with her mother, Bathabile Moreki. By the time they arrived from Centurion at OR Tambo International Airport at about 7am, Terminal A was already attracting numerous welcome-wishers. A few short hours later it was filled with hundreds of people wanting to welcome home the newly crowned Miss Universe, Zozibini Tunzi.
Saturday marked the start of the Eastern Cape beauty’s homecoming tour, following her crowning in Atlanta, Georgia in December. Even though she was arriving in Johannesburg on a dreary morning after a massive rainstorm that led to floods on the highway leading to the airport, little could dampen the spirits of her fans who clutched onto the railings in front of arrival terminal’s doors.
“I’m here to see Miss Universe. I love her because she’s proud of who she is, she beautiful and brave and she inspires me,” Sitasati told the Sunday Times.
“If I could give her a message, I’d say: thank you for inspiring all the girls of SA. I love you!” she said. As the 26-year-old pageant winner entered the arrival halls, both Sitasati and her mother’s eyes widened, followed by them joining in the hundreds of screams and songs filling the terminal hall.
Aphumelele Mdlalane and her friends had travelled all the way from Bloemfontein just to greet the woman who they had watched since she was originally crowned Miss South Africa. They had flown up to Johannesburg the previous morning, stayed with friends overnight and were stationed at OR Tambo by 7.30am, armed with SA flags and clad in green and gold.
“She is someone who empowers women, she takes control of her own space. Natural hair, natural make-up, she is so real,” said Mdlalane.
“We wanted to be part of the crowd welcoming her back, we wanted to be part of the one voice congratulating her on becoming Miss Universe,” she said.
Her friend Loyiso Rasmeni looked equally excited at the prospect of seeing Miss Universe in the flesh. “She’s living proof that whatever you set for yourself, if you believe and work hard, it will come to pass. If you’re comfortable in your own skin, authentic, people will love you for you,” he said.
A fellow pageant winner, Kamogelo Radebe, who won Miss Tourism SA, also stood at the front of the crowd to get closer to the woman who she said inspired her to be better. “She makes it seem like anything is possible, you can be anything you want to be. She’s so humble, so real,” said Radebe.
“I’m very emotional, so I’m probably going to cry when I see her,” she said before Tunzi’s arrival. And when Miss Universe arrived, she did.
As Tunzi entered the terminal, in a champagne dress and crown, she appeared overwhelmed with emotion, almost on the verge of crying before regaining her composure and sporting a huge smile at the hundreds screaming for her. Serenaded to a small stage by the Soweto Gospel Choir, she hugged current Miss South Africa Sasha-Lee Olivier, and they both began crying.
After words of welcome from the deputy minister of arts and culture and the mayor of Ekurhuleni, she finally was able to greet her excited fans.
“I didn’t know I’d cry this early,” she said.
At a media conference following her arrival, Tunzi said she couldn’t wait to be back in her hometown of Tsolo in the Eastern Cape. Affectionately referring to her father as “Mr Universe” and her mother as her pillar of strength, she said she couldn’t wait to see them.
She said it was so important for parents to support their children’s dreams, and support and understand their passions. “I believe in what the love of a father can do for a daughter,” she said.
Tunzi said when she was a child living in a remote area, she had no idea she would ever be able to achieve such a prominent leadership position. “It’s a big step for every child, for every child who feels they cannot make it, they can,” she said.
Tunzi is set to launch her new campaign, in co-operation with the United Nations in a bid to raise awareness on gender equality and to fight against gender-based violence. She said she was so glad to work with the UN, which would help her spread her message as far as possible. She said that currently, she felt that following the women’s march decades ago, it was now her turn to “pick up the baton” and pass it onto the next generation. “They (the women’s march activists) worked so hard, we can’t let them down,” she said.
While many of her messages to young women have been widely publicised, she gave a message to the young men of SA. “It is your responsibility as well to uplift women, we can’t just call on women for the protection of women,” she said.
She thanked the crowd for braving the weather to come and see her, but said she’d been feeling the love of her country since she was first crowned Miss South Africa. But it was when she went to represent the country in the Miss Universe pageant that she felt she was no longer just one body, but rather one built of all of the people of her country.
“Thank you for believing in this skinny black girl,” she said, to a well of emotional screams from the audience.
“I didn’t know it was possible for someone like me to become Miss Universe. Now I’m confident that I can tell other girls like me that they can be Miss Universe too,” she said.
Tunzi is set to start her tour of the country over the next few days.