South Africa's collective psyche has undergone a number of shocks in the past three years, none greater than the victory of Jacqui Mofokeng in the Miss South Africa contest on 7 August. Jacqui - everyone in South Africa now calls her Jacqui, in the same way that everyone in Britain calls the Princess of Wales Diana - was the first black woman to win the title.

Mandela's release, the unbanning of the African National Congress, negotiations for a democratic constitution - nothing had prepared the white population for this. While black South Africa celebrated, white South Africa went nuts.

Rapport, an Afrikaans-language Sunday newspaper and a co-sponsor of the pageant, was inundated with irate calls within minutes of the judges' decision to choose Jacqui ahead of eight Aryan nymphs. In the following week, one issue dominated the nation's Letters pages. 'Rigged]' readers cried. 'Window-dressing]' 'Blackwashing]'. A Johannesburg radio station received wall-to-wall calls for the first 48 hours after Jacqui's crowning. 'She's got a big bum]' 'She's got ugly teeth]' 'She had a baby at 15]' And a blunt: 'I don't like black people]'

At the time 30 people were dying a night in the killing fields of Katlehong and Thokoza townships, but the black press indignantly joined the fray. The Sowetan carried a leading article denouncing 'the bigots' who had turned Jacqui's young life 'into absolute hell'. One black columnist marvelled at a country where 'a national crisis' could be precipitated by the verdict of a beauty contest.

The object of all the attention kept her head. Jacqui, who is 21 and a second-year commerce student at Johannesburg's Witwatersrand University with aspirations of being a stockbroker, came across as remarkably serene when I met her.

On Saturday she takes part as hot favourite in the Miss World contest in Sun City. The result is certain to be the main front-page story in every newspaper on Sunday. Nelson Mandela gratefully seized a photo-opportunity with Jacqui recently. She would make 'a good ambassador' for South Africa, he told her.

What did she make of all the fuss? 'Being Miss South Africa,' she said in a suite reserved for her all year round at Johannesburg's Carlton Hotel, 'does not only mean being a beauty queen - I hate the term. It means being a representative - I don't like the word ambassador - of your people.

'I know that it's mainly followed by white people, so I understand what happened. The reason for the outcry was that I was black and many didn't believe I could carry out the job so well, being a black girl. Plus you have a lot of ignorance about black people.

'Fortunately some have changed, like a white lady I met in Pretoria who said she was glad I won though she was against it at first.'

In a country where the main political battles are being fought inside people's minds - 'shedding albatrosses', President F W de Klerk called it this week - Jacqui, building on the unique attention that Miss South Africa receives in a country hungry for showbiz celebrities, has played a central role in the all-important task of bridging the apartheid chasm. And she knows it.

'It's very, very important. I'm not saying I can change the world but I am opening people's minds. White people are seeing blacks as not all bad and I'm educating the blacks in my community - my mum still lives in Soweto.

'Hearing the lady in Pretoria saying she'd warmed to me, but also hearing other ladies there saying things like 'she's not that bad', I've realised there's much need to educate. It's what the country needs more than anything right now.'

White South Africans' generally held view that blacks are genetically inferior has been modified, if not entirely eradicated, since Jacqui burst on the scene. Appearances on countless television and radio programmes, where she has discussed everything from abortion to the new constitution, have convinced everyone that she is bright. Had any of the other Barbie-doll contenders won the contest, it is unlikely that they would have declared, as Jacqui did, 'I love my country and I know tonight, as I sit here with a crown on my head, there are people dying in the townships. I have not forgotten them.'

Jacqui's special quality is that she has successfully crossed apartheid's cultural divide. No one, for example, would describe her style of dress as African. During our interview she wore a fluorescent green long-sleeved top, black flared silk trousers and high platform shoes. Her diction, intonation and choice of words are more Surrey than Soweto. 'A-may-zing', she kept on exclaiming, in a distinctly un-African manner.

The school she went to holds the secret to her success. Woodmead is an expensive private school in the white suburbs of Johannesburg much favoured by politically enlightened (there are a few) white parents.

'There were lots of black kids there. I really couldn't tell you what percentage, because I didn't see race when I talked to people. Race was a non-issue. It was a very liberal, open school. We could wear whatever we wanted. It was Utopia, an ideal world.'

Jacqui's father, Willie Mofokeng, is a rare animal - a middle-class black who works as an executive for EMI. He brought his family up in a better-end Soweto neighbourhood where there are houses that would grace an affluent Middlesex suburb, inhabited by people with a fierce ambition to rise above apartheid.

Mr Mofokeng was one such. At great personal sacrifice, as Jacqui explained it, he pandered to her whim to go to boarding school, to prepare for what in time will become, in the ANC's favourite phrase, the 'non-racial' mainstream.

The job was successfully accomplished. When a white man talks to a black woman in South Africa, more often than not the submissiveness bred both by apartheid and the rampant sexism in black society impair any possibility of natural engagement. With Jacqui, the complications of race and gender do not rear their head. More surprisingly, given her educational background, nor did the complications of feminism.

'I've never entered a beauty pageant before. There's more to judging Miss South Africa than a beautiful face and a swimming costume. You have to know the people of South Africa and how to relate to the people of South Africa. You're judged on charm and poise and how you handle your reign. If you just stand and look pretty, there's definitely something wrong. I've done things like raising money for old-age homes, retarded kids. I went to Katlehong, where the violence was so awful I couldn't find words to describe it.'

But surely standing there looking pretty was precisely what winning Miss South Africa was about before she came along? Acknowledging, with a slightly embarrassed laugh, that she had been caught on automatic pilot, she agreed. 'You're right. It's me that's doing this. I'm defining my role - me, Jacqui Mofokeng - not 'Miss South Africa'.'

She is clearly eager to embrace the fame and riches that the Miss World title might bring. She is ambitious in a way that her older sister - whose dreams will be fulfilled when she gets married later this year - is not, and her twin sisters, who are still at school, have not yet had a chance to be. But that side of her personality is probably buried for fear of undermining the regal image. For the fact is, she will remain until August next year South Africa's queen.

Like all good queens, she has assumed her responsibilities with a properly mature disregard both for temporal controversy and party politics. She must keep her politics strictly to herself if she is to become a symbol of national unity. Few people know that before assuming her title she was active in student politics, that her sympathies lay (and still do, no doubt) unequivocally with Mandela's ANC. Her fellow students shed all political misgivings when she won and engaged in riotous campus celebrations.

Victory for Jacqui in the Miss World contest would have a positive impact all round: on ordinary blacks, because it would enhance their nascent sense of equality and dignity; and on ordinary whites, whose need to get to grips with the new realities will be assisted if they can discover a black South African woman of whom they are proud.

Part of the battle has already been won. The suave diplomacy and poise that Jacqui has displayed since becoming Miss South Africa three months ago has ensured that the majority of the population, black and white, will be rooting for her on Saturday.

(Photograph omitted)

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