Miss South Africa on Tuesday announced the top 30 contestants vying for the title of Miss South Africa 2021.
The top 30 is an impressive and diverse group. Among them are two medical doctors, an attorney, a commercial pilot, an environmental specialist, models, graduates, and students.
This year also marks the first transgender woman, Lehlogonolo Machaba from North West, to openly enter the Miss South Africa pageant.
The 24-year-old, who works as a model booker at Invade Models, is also the founder of DeMollies fashion brand and holds a diploma in fashion design technology from the Tshwane University of Technology.
About her decision to enter Miss South Africa 2021, she says: "Transgender women are almost always ostracised from such opportunities, which is why I never thought I'd see anyone like myself on such a platform. I believe that being chosen would raise hope in a lot of little girls like myself."
She goes on to say: "It has always been a dream of mine to represent my community at such a high level. The daily murder of queer and trans-identifying people in our country is devastating. Through the Miss South Africa platform, I'd be able to advocate for the LGBTQIA community and, more specifically, queer-identifying women. I would use this opportunity to empower every marginalised person and become a beacon of hope for young girls out there regardless of whatever they think hinders them from attaining whatever goal they have. With patience, perseverance and hard work, they can attain anything they put their minds to."
Lehlogonolo believes beauty pageants are more relevant today than ever before, because of titleholders like Zozibini Tunzi, who have inspired change around the world.
"Young girls like myself are being inspired to dream big and chase their dreams. Beauty pageants are more relevant than ever and are highly inclusive and updated. We've seen them transition over the years from including women with different body shapes, skin tones, different backgrounds to now allowing transgender women like myself to enter."
In her spare time, Lehlogonolo volunteers at a local LGBTQIA centre, Access Chapter Two, to help young people with university applications and job applications.
Lehlogonolo says her gender marker has posed obstacles in the past, but she has bounced back from life's challenges stronger and happier.
"I lost an opportunity to travel to Milan for the Gucci fashion show because of my gender marker and not having the necessary documents to change it," she explains.
"Through that, I've learned that failure is just a redirection of something bigger and better and used it as an opportunity to speak out about my identity on social media, which has inspired a lot of people and has educated them on the necessary steps one should take when transitioning," she says.
Lehlogonolo, who lives with her mother, and brother in Letlhabile in the North West, says her mother is her role model and "the true definition of a strong woman," having survived GBV and long years of being unemployed. "Yet through all those challenges, she came out strong and graceful," she says.
If she wins the title of Miss South Africa 2021, Lehlogonolo says she hopes to meet Laverne Cox.
"I see myself in her and love what she stands for as a transgender woman, and I'm highly inspired by her ongoing advocacy for women and transgender people. She was the first transgender woman to win an Emmy and the first on the cover of Time magazine and continues to break the mould and be an inspiration to all women out there."
Sharing a message with the women of South Africa, Lehlogonolo says: "Dream beyond your imagination and always prioritise your education and mental health first."