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In July 2021, Lehlogonolo Machaba made history as the first trans woman to make it to the top 30 finalists for South Africa’s premier pageant, Miss South Africa. While she did not make it to the pageant’s finale, her historical placement in the competition is one of Machaba’s favorite wins. Not because of what it means for her career, but what it could mean for the future of South Africa’s trans community.
“As trans women of color, we have been silenced and marginalized,” Machaba says. “So I believe that with my platform as an activist, I can fight the hate and confusion society still has against the queer community. And it will slowly be eradicated for a better new generation where we can all pursue our dreams in peace, and not have to educate people about our existence anymore.”
In 2006, South Africa became the first African country and the fifth globally to legalize same-sex marriage. This move helped mark South Africa as a haven of sorts to the African LGBTQ+ community. The Alteration of Sex Description and Sex Status Act, passed in 2003, allows trans citizens to change their gender legally in the population registry and receive new identity documents. While hate crimes are sadly still common, the trans community in South Africa is still thriving and seeing significant progress. “South Africa is a shining beacon for the LBGTQ+ community in Africa,” Machaba says. “Johannesburg is where you’ll see the beauty of queer existence. There is so much diversity.”
Before Machaba was a pageant queen, she was a model in South Africa. Born in Letlhabile, a town in South Africa’s north west province, Machaba became interested in fashion and modeling early in life. This interest led to her studying fashion design technology at the Tshwane University of Technology. She began working as a model booker for Invade Models, a South African modeling agency, and a model walking for designers like Maxhosa, NOLA BLACK, Marianne Fassler, and more.
However, Machaba’s desire to not be discriminated against or typecast as a trans model began taking a toll on her mental health. “As a model, I couldn’t disclose my identity as a trans woman because I did not want to be typecast.” Machaba says. “I had a mental breakdown regarding the fake life I was living and the fact that I couldn’t even raise matters that were close to my heart.” In late 2020, a friend suggested she try out for the Miss South Africa pageant. “I thought that was a good platform for me,” Machaba says. “I could use it to educate and try to reduce the stigma towards the LGBTQ+ community.”