It’s scorching hot in Vanderbijlpark, in the south of the Gauteng province in South Africa. The streets are quiet, apart from the odd car that drives past us. We take refuge from the heat under a jacaranda tree as we wait for Lebohang Monyatsi.
Monyatsi was adjudged First Princess at the Miss Wheelchair World pageant on October 7 in Warsaw, Poland. She is Africa’s first-ever runway model in a wheelchair.
Monyatsi drives around the corner in a red car, windows wide open, smiles and waves, signaling us to follow her. She will lead us to her home.
Monyatsi’s cousin escorts her out of the car and on to her wheelchair, its wheels a gaudy pink, branded Ms Wheelchair World. While Monyatsi is greeted by stairs at the entrance of her home, we’re greeted by gospel music; its base causes the windows to vibrate. She cautiously negotiates her way up the stairs with her cousin’s help.
Monyatsi, 31, has been confined to a wheelchair since the age of three when diagnosed with polio.
“This is all I have ever known and in a sense I thank God because I am not burdened with a longing to walk, it’s something I have never been able to do.”
Born in Mahikeng, the capital city of the North West province of South Africa, and best known internationally for the Second Boer War, Monyatsi remembers little about life before polio.
“My grandmother told me I was a sweet child, shy, but I was always smiling and warm,” she says.
But something was amiss every time she would try to walk, unlike other toddlers her age.
Polio (poliomyelitis), a highly infectious disease caused by a virus, invades the nervous system, and can cause total paralysis in a matter of hours.
According to the World Health Organization, “Polio mainly affects children under five years of age. One in 200 infections leads to irreversible paralysis. Among those paralyzed, 5% to 10% die when their breathing muscles become immobilized.”
And, while the number of polio cases has fallen worldwide from an estimated 350,000 in 1988 to 407 in 2013 — a decline of more than 99% in reported cases, some parts of West and North Africa are still grappling to contain the virus.
Monyatsi was raised by her grandmother after the passing of her mother when she was only nine years old.
“When my mom passed on, my granny became my rock, I don’t know where I would be without her.”
Monyatsi manages to seat herself on the brown couch. It’s L-shaped and takes up most of the living room of her apartment, which is not designed for wheelchairs. Its countertops are high, the passages to the various rooms narrow; black marks line the walls, mapping the areas she has had to negotiate her way through.
“I guess I had a good upbringing, except that I grew up with able-bodied people at home and in my community, there was no one else like me. Sometimes I would get teased. They would call me sekgoele (handicapped),” she remembers.
“But my biggest challenge when I came of school-going age was that I was not able to attend a mainstream school. The schools were not accessible to people in wheelchairs, I actually started primary school when I was 11 years old.”
In South Africa, law recommends or requires children to start school at the age of six or seven. Her grandmother had searched for years. She found a special needs school next to Gelukspan, not far from Mahikeng.
“Everything was good there because all the children in that school were like me in some way or another – special – so I could relate. Everyone had different disabilities, some were limping while others were on crutches and some, like me, were in wheelchairs. I matriculated in 2008 at the same school, I was 23 or 24.”
Again, in South Africa, education at a secondary level is completed at the age of 18.
“I was very old,” Monyatsi giggles.
Currently studying for a Bachelor of Arts in Communications, she has already obtained a degree in Social Psychology at North-West University in South Africa.
“I have realized that in South Africa, we don’t have many people capturing the good things disabled people all around the country do and most of the time and when they do, they create stories as though it’s something extraordinary and it’s not, it’s normal, all these people have done is do it in a different way.”
Her motivation for returning to school and studying communications is reminiscent of South Africa’s Olympian and fallen hero Oscar Pistorius. Like Monyatsi, he was unable to walk as a young boy, born without lower limbs. Pistorius’ limbs were amputated below the knee when he was 11 months old.
“With my commutations degree, I’m hoping to capture the activities people with disabilities participate in everyday like everyone else,” says Monyatsi.
But her ambition surpassed academics.
“From a young age, I always wanted to be a model.”
Like any young girl with aspirations, she would see models on television or glossy magazines and dreamed that one day she would be like them, perhaps even better.
“But sadly, I could not pursue this career because in Africa, actually I think in the world, there’s really no inclusion for people with disabilities in the entertainment industry. But then, when I saw the opportunity to enter the Miss Wheelchair World pageant, I was very excited because finally I could just do what I have always wanted to do – model.”
Before the pageant, she participated in other contests that were not easy to come by.
Monyatsi was at the Soweto Fashion Week, Maboneng, and D-Junction Fashion week showcasing the work of various designers.
“I once won Miss Confidence for the North West province,” she beams. “That was great.”
For Miss Wheelchair World, she had been selected from a bevy of hopefuls from around the world. She was one of 24 finalists.
“I was the only one from South Africa; from the rest of the continent, it was just the two of us, myself and Miss Angola. I was really excited. I received a call from one of the sponsors and she told me that this is a monumental achievement and that I would need to start looking for sponsorship.”
Monyatsi was the first South African woman in a wheelchair to be a runway model and the first to represent South Africa at the pageant.
A Polish organization had held the first international edition of a beauty pageant for women in wheelchairs in an effort to change people’s perceptions about people with disabilities. The event was organized by the Only One Foundation, founded by two disabled women seeking to break down barriers limiting disabled people. After four editions of Miss Poland Wheelchair, the pageant marked an effort to go global.
Monyatsi would come to realize just how difficult it was to be a person living with a disability in South Africa. She looked for sponsorship everywhere. She poured her excitement into a letter to the Presidency of South Africa and then to the country’s department of social development.
In it she wrote how she had become a finalist for Miss Wheelchair World that was a first for South Africa. But nobody came forward to sponsor her trip.
“I was rejected by all of them… I had to get a loan for R25,000 ($1,800) for my flight to Poland.”
The organizers paid for the accommodation.
“Looking back, I’m still so angry and hurt by the government because I feel like I was not taken seriously. I just didn’t understand why because I was going there to represent South Africa, not myself.”
Monyatsi goes on to offer an example of former South African beauty queen and business woman, Basetsana Kumalo, who after winning the Miss South Africa title in 1994, went on to become the 1st runner up for Miss World Africa. She received major praise and support from South Africa for elevating the country on an international stage.
“I was the first runner up in this competition but nobody knows or cares,” she says as she looks at her hands folded over her limp knees.
“I don’t know if it’s because I am disabled.”
But she is grateful for the support from her family, her community as well as South African citizens. A fashion designer from Cape Town who was inspired by Monyatsi’s story sponsored two of her dresses for the competition.
Poland, unlike South Africa, according to Monyatsi, is very wheelchair-friendly.
“They are really able to accommodate people with disabilities, even the transportation system is great, very wheelchair-friendly. It was really easy for me to make my way around without assistance. People also don’t stare, I never felt like I was a side-show parading for people’s bewilderment and pity everyday like here in South Africa.”
Monyatsi explains that each day when she wakes up, she is forced to mentally brace herself for the stares she knows she’ll get as she goes about her day.
“Every day, it’s like I am an exotic animal people never even knew existed, why is that?” she asks, confused. “We’re not welfare, we’re normal.”
In South Africa, just over two million people live with some form of a disability, according to a Census 2011 report by Statistics South Africa.
Her struggles go beyond the stares. Finding a job in South Africa is proving to be a daunting task.
“Minibus taxis see me in a wheelchair and drive right past me even as I flag them to stop. I am no different than an able-bodied paying customer; the only difference is no one is willing to assist me. Can you imagine my life, I’m black, a woman and I’m disabled, that’s like a triple disaster in this country,” she laughs.
This achievement was a big part of her drive to work towards disability inclusion. Her hope is for every aspect of life to be accessible to people with disabilities and she plans to use her communications degree to achieve that.
“I really want to change the image of people, and of women in particular, with disabilities, break barriers and show that being in a wheelchair is not a limitation.”
Monyatsi has proven it certainly isn’t.