'I’m stronger now': How Miss SA Shudufhadzo Musida beat the bullies
The new Miss SA is determined to help those mental health issues during her reign
A pale sun lights the face of Miss SA 2020, Shudufhadzo Musida, in her hotel room, where first princess Thato Mosehle does her makeup during our interview — her fourth by 8am.
In a fluffy pink gown with hearts, Mosehle, a medical doctor, has tears in her eyes as she brushes powder onto her friend’s flawless face.
“Why are you crying?” asks Musida.
Without drama, Musida had been describing five years of bullying after she moved primary schools in grade 3 from Limpopo to Secunda in Mpumalanga.
“Mostly it was verbal, making sure to break me down with words, instilling fear in me. At one point it got so bad that every single break I would sit at the back of the school where nobody could see me. One girl, Evette, would sit with me and I would cry every single break.”
Back then, who would have foreseen that a girl who would itch and sweat and want to cry when she stood up to speak in class would glide across the stage under SA’s admiring gaze at the age of 24?
The Miss SA crown — placed on her head on October 24 at the Table Bay Hotel in Cape Town — is a symbol for school kids everywhere that bullying does not define their futures.
“I’m stronger now. I got through it somehow and that is the key, I got through it,” she emphasises.
“I could never pinpoint why,” she says of the abuse she endured for years, which was shattering to her young self.
“Maybe it was because they grew up with one another and I was this girl from Venda who barely spoke any of the languages there or English. But I learnt quickly.”
Whatever the reason, the eight-year-old who danced in the corridors of her Limpopo school, starred in a performance of Sarafina and sang the hit, Special Star, was silenced by bullying schoolmates.
But in grade 8 Musida escaped when her mother moved her and her sister to Johannesburg, and she enrolled at Bryanston High School.
“Even after I moved, I was so scared of being bullied again that I would sit in the school library alone eating lunch for three or four months.” This went on until classmates got her to join them at break.
The kindness of Lydie Byart, still her best friend, and other Bryanston pupils gave Musida a chance to regain her confidence and become a warrior for mental health.
Asked in the Miss SA contest what movement she would start if she could, she said: “I would call my movement the mindful movement. Suicide is one of the leading causes of death of people aged between 15 and 29. One in three people are expected to suffer from mental illnesses in their lifetime, so I believe that mobilising people to strive for mental health would fix so many social ills in our society.”
Raising taboo conversations is a risk she’s proved she is willing to take. Just like taking part in Miss SA with a nearly bare head.
“I didn’t think I was breaking boundaries by entering with no hair because it felt like that boundary was broken already last year ... I was propelled by Miss Universe [Zozibini Tunzi], that a girl like me can win a contest like Miss SA. The beauty pageant landscape has changed a lot.”
Musida says of her shorn locks: “Sometimes you don’t realise how impactful something is until other people point it out. I am just being myself.”
She cut her hair for the first time in 2015 when she was walking back from gym past her hair salon in North Riding. “I went in and told them I want to cut my hair. They asked if I was sure, and then cut all of it off.
“I looked in the mirror and thought: ‘What have I just done?’ But it felt so freeing. Now I can’t stay with long hair for too long.”
It got to the point where I thought if I covered up and didn’t draw too much attention, maybe it would stopMiss SA on dressing like a boy in an effort to stop people bullying her
The graduate and successful model says: “With bullying, I had attached some of my validation to my hair.” Now, what she does, not how she looks, is her validation. Musida’s stunning appearance drew attention early on, even though she only started modelling at 17 when her confidence had returned, to earn pocket money.
After seeing a fellow pupil on a retailer’s advertising billboards, she sent pics to an agency. “I got signed and the next day I had my first job,” she says.
During the bullying, Musida had started to dress like a boy. “It got to the point where I thought if I covered up and didn’t draw too much attention, maybe it would stop.”
The modelling shoots turned this around. “It was super cool getting my face glammed up, especially after being a tomboy for a long time,” she says.
“I have a phobia of losing my teeth, not about breaking bones. Even walking downstairs, I sometimes do this,” she says, closing her cupid’s bow mouth, and then laughing at herself.
“Facing that fear was the scariest part of playing hockey,” says Musida, who was knocked unconscious at about 14 after a ball hit her forehead during a game.
“I woke up when the match was over. I downplayed this to my mother,” says Musida, whose determination to make her own choices in life is clear.
Her close friend and aunt, Mpho Musida, says of her: “She is goal-oriented and a hard worker. She always has a vision of where she wants to go. I was not too surprised she won, though I was shaken when she was the last to be called, out of the top five.”
On the big night, Musida says she had fun, dancing backstage with Mosehle. “I felt very, very calm and I don’t understand why. I just wanted to enjoy the process and not stress too much, almost as if it were something predestined. If it did not work out, it was not my path.”
Musida used to watch Miss SA on TV at the village — just as her grandfather Elias did last weekend — and it seemed attainable to her then, more than when she was being undermined by bullying.
For example, she was singing on the bus soon after she had joined the hostile school and got the lyrics wrong. “All of them laughed and made fun of me all week. I would not want to sing again in case I made a mistake. That’s where my fear of failure came in.”
She started performing again at high school and one parent suggested she enter Miss SA. “In my mind I was thinking, ‘I’m so scared of failing’,” says Musida — yet the dream took hold.
“Watching the winning moment of Miss SA has always been my favourite,” says the first Venda woman to find out for herself how this feels.
“There was this suspenseful music and then I was so happy I couldn’t breathe. Then the air came rushing back and it was the most exciting moment.
“The first thing I thought about was that I’m employed and that I had a chance to make an impact on a bigger stage. My biggest wish was to say my final statement,” she says, of her call around mental health.
Musida won the public vote but she still seems dazed by her victory, as a popular video clip of her wondering at the “entire crown on my head” reveals.
On the night, she celebrated with her mother Thandi, aunt and cousins before “sleeping early”, at one in the morning.
“Over the past five months I have been doing Miss SA preparations during the day and back-to-back assignments during the night. My mind is constantly working,” says Musida.
This year she is finishing an honours degree in international relations at Wits University after graduating from the University of Pretoria with a social science bachelors in philosophy, politics and economics.
Musida has a hiatus from deadlines but her final university assignment, on the impact of climate change on food security in Africa, is due soon. Her case study for this is the 2000 Mozambique floods, which were so destructive that they also demolished the hut in which she and her family lived in the village of Ha-Masai in Venda.
Normally in Venda, water insecurity is common and people travel far to get it, says Musida, whose home village is about 140km from Polokwane.
“When I was there about four weeks ago people were queuing for water.
“My grandfather calls me a hippy because I have always been a dreamer. He was the first person I called after I won,” says Musida, who remembers her grandmother taking her to church to sing.
Musida would visit her great-grandmother after school, for her favourite dish, muroho wa-thanga, made of nuts and pumpkin leaves. “I would watch her grinding nuts and she would tell us stories.”
Musida was born on July 18, Mandela Day, in 1996. Mpho Musida says her niece has always been generous in spirit and shares everything.
“When I had my son in 2018, she would come and run errands for us, and check up on us.
“Even when she was earning a little money, she would buy her grandfather shoes, brand shoes like Puma slip-ons.”
Her close friend Byart says: “She has a very big heart and is always there when I need her. She is very compassionate and empathetic.”
Musida’s natural reserve hasn’t stood in the way of making friends in the contest.
“We were even planning a reunion trip before the finals. We are basically sisters,” says the 62nd Miss SA. These friendships have been a bonus. After being bullied “for a very long time”, it took Musida time to trust people, even herself, again.
“Often people engage with others to shame. That is not how we should be talking to each other,” she says.
Trolls on social media, listen up.
Looking back on that bleak period, Musida says: “I was finding myself to be a person I was not. Every version you put forward is not you, but you hope that’s the version that will make them stop.
“You doubt yourself a lot. Even after it has stopped, you take over from the bully and bully yourself. You get so used to that feeling. You need to break that toxic habit of constantly bringing yourself down, which can get you into a very sad state.”
She has participated in a workshop with children with mental health conditions and understands the widespread depression and anxiety triggered by the coronavirus pandemic, with the loss of loved ones and livelihoods.
“It is OK not to be OK, to feel sad, to deal with what happened to you,” she says. “I am not bullied any more, and I have opportunities moving from the village to the city, for which I was grateful.”
Musida feels like she has come a full circle.
“I’m at that point where I’m that little girl growing up in the village, looking up to the sky and feeling everything was limitless. I feel like I’m back in the village again; it is just a bigger village.”
ROLE MODELS AND A CRUSH
Shudufhadzo Musida looks up to Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, SA’s former deputy president who currently serves as the executive director of UN Women.
She also admires Amina Jane Mohammed, a Nigerian diplomat and politician who is the deputy secretary-general of the UN.
Then there are former Miss SAs Basetsana Kumalo and Zozibini Tunzi, along with global icons Michelle Obama and Beyoncé.
She also admits: “I have the biggest crush on Trevor Noah.”
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