Miss Wheel­chair World run­ner-up Le­bo­hang Mony­at­son breaks the mould

She paid her own way to get to Poland so she could take part in the Miss Wheel­chair pageant – and was named first princess!


TRENDY hair, per­fectly straight teeth, high cheek­bones – it’s not hard to see why she was named first princess in a global beauty pageant or why she’s a sought-af­ter model. But Le­bo­hang Mony­atsi is much more than a pretty face: she also has a de­gree in psy­chol­ogy and is an ac­com­plished ath­lete.

But there’s one other thing that sets her apart from the pack – the wheel­chair parked in the cor­ner of the room while she sits chat­ting to us on the couch.

The stun­ning 31-year-old has been dis­abled since the age of three but she’s never al­lowed her dis­abil­ity to de­fine her, she says.

“So if you think I have more willpower than most able-bod­ied peo­ple it’s be­cause I don’t see a dif­fer­ence be­tween able-bod­ied peo­ple and me.”

Le­bo­hang is still buzzing from the ex­cite­ment of be­ing named first princess in the first Miss Wheel­chair World pageant held in War­saw, Poland, in Oc­to­ber.

Or­gan­ised by the NGO Only One Foun­da­tion, the pageant aims to change the im­age of women in wheel­chairs and to demon­strate that dis­abil­i­ties are not lim­i­ta­tions.

“War­saw was great,” she says. “The peo­ple were very wel­com­ing and the in­fra­struc­ture of the city made such an im­pres­sion on me.

“It’s very wheel­chair-friendly and you can get around with­out peo­ple help­ing you. The trans­port sys­tem is also geared to­ward peo­ple with dis­abil­i­ties.”

Al­though Le­bo­hang is thrilled by the out­come of the trip it came with a price tag.

“The pageant spon­sored ac­com­mo­da­tion, food and in­surance – the only thing they didn’t sponsor was trav­el­ling fare.” So Le­bo­hang used her sav­ings to fund her trav­els – which she was happy to do, she adds, al­though she quickly re­alised she’d need some help.

“I had enough money saved to get to Poland but there was no way I was go­ing with­out Thandi Nt­seane, who is my helper. I wrote to the of­fice of the pres­i­dent to re­quest help with funds as well as to the so­cial de­vel­op­ment min­istry and the Na­tional Coun­cil for Per­sons with Phys­i­cal Dis­abil­i­ties. They all de­clined my re­quest.

“I had to take a R15 000 loan and even that wasn’t enough. It was only af­ter an in­ter­view on Power FM that I got as­sis­tance. I told my story on ra­dio and a lis­tener by the name of Mfundo Nongcula reached out and helped to fund the rest of the trip.”

LE­BO­HANG, who was born in Vry­burg in the North West, de­vel­oped po­lio at the age of three. The virus, which causes paral­y­sis in chil­dren, is eas­ily preventable with a vac­cine but Le­bo­hang wasn’t im­mu­nised against the dis­ease as a baby.

“I don’t hold a grudge against my fam­ily for not im­mu­nis­ing me,” she says. “It was a lack of knowl­edge.”

Grow­ing up with a dis­abil­ity wasn’t easy and she couldn’t keep up with the other kids, she re­calls.

“Some­times those kids would tease me and call me segole ( hand­i­capped) but the big­gest chal­lenge I went through was the in­abil­ity to at­tend a main­stream school be­cause they don’t ac­com­mo­date peo­ple with dis­abil­i­ties.”

Still, she be­lieves there is some higher pur­pose to it all. “Per­haps the Lord de­cided I was the one He was go­ing to use

to make a change for the dis­abled. In the book of Jeremiah he says, ‘I know the plans I have for you – plans to make you pros­per’.”

Be­ing dis­abled wasn’t the only hard­ship she faced grow­ing up. She lost her mom at age nine but, tough as that was, her grand­mother, El­iz­a­beth Mony­atsi (80), stepped into the role of mother and has been Le­bo­hang’s rock ever since.

“Through­out this jour­ney I have had strong sup­port from fam­ily and friends, but es­pe­cially from my grand­mother.”

Le­bo­hang bat­tled with her health through­out early child­hood and was 11 years old when she was able to at­tend school for the first time. Her gogo sent her to Tlame­lang Spe­cial School in Gelukspan near Mahikeng.

“I started late, but the great thing about Tlame­lang is that we all un­der­stood each other be­cause we were all dis­abled,” she says.

At school she took a keen in­ter­est in sport, par­tic­u­larly wheel­chair bas­ket­ball, and fell in love with the idea of be­com­ing a model.

“While grow­ing up I re­alised there was no one who looks like me in show­biz and the me­dia in­dus­try,” she says.

“That’s when I told my­self I have to get out of my com­fort zone and be an in­spi­ra­tion to other peo­ple who are fac­ing the same chal­lenges in the hope they’d fol­low and maybe even sur­pass me.”

Le­bo­hang aced her ma­tric ex­ams and went on to study psy­chol­ogy at North­West Univer­sity, where she con­tin­ued to play wheel­chair bas­ket­ball – so suc­cess­fully she rep­re­sented South Africa in Mex­ico in the qual­i­fy­ing rounds of the 2012 Sum­mer Par­a­lympic Games.

“I was named the best shooter,” she says proudly. Un­for­tu­nately the team didn’t make it all the way to the Par­a­lympics but Le­bo­hang re­ceived a taste of the world out there.

Back home she re­newed her in­ter­est in mod­el­ling and ap­peared on the run­way in her wheel­chair at Soweto Fash­ion Week this year.

“I as­pire to do the Mercedes-Benz Fash­ion Week in fu­ture,” she tells us.

MAKING the fi­nals of Miss Wheel­chair World was a huge deal for her, she says. “I had been fol­low­ing the Miss Wheel­chair World Face­book page when I saw that they were re­cruit­ing peo­ple to en­ter Miss Wheel­chair World 2017 and I ap­plied.”

The pageant was pre­vi­ously Miss Poland Wheel­chair un­til the or­gan­is­ers de­cided to take it global.

In Au­gust she re­ceived an email invit­ing her to take part in the pageant.

“I couldn’t be­lieve it. I told Thandi this was an op­por­tu­nity for me to change the im­age of peo­ple with dis­abil­i­ties.

“I en­tered be­cause I’ve al­ways wanted to be a model but I couldn’t be­cause there are no op­por­tu­ni­ties for per­sons with dis­abil­i­ties in the mod­el­ling in­dus­try. To be an­nounced first run­ner-up was a big deal for me.”

As first princess she is ex­pected to mar­ket the pageant and do char­ity work. “You need to make a change in your part of the world, which is what I’m about.”

Le­bo­hang doesn’t talk much about her pri­vate life but she lets slip that mar­riage might not be far off.

“I’m cur­rently dat­ing and I fore­see hav­ing a fam­ily,” she says.

And what of the fu­ture? “I’ll be start­ing the pageant Miss Wheel­chair South Africa,” she says.

“I have my work cut out to raise aware­ness re­gard­ing peo­ple with dis­abil­i­ties. In South Africa, peo­ple with dis­abil­i­ties face a lot of chal­lenges.

“My po­si­tion af­fords me a sphere of in­flu­ence. Women in wheel­chairs should not be judged solely by this fact.”

Amen to that.

‘Per­haps the Lord de­cided I was the one He was go­ing to use to make a change for the dis­abled’

ABOVE: Le­bo­hang Mony­atsi was named first princess at the Miss Wheel­chair World 2017 pageant in Poland last month. BE­LOW: She con­tracted po­lio at the age of three and it left her paral­ysed. BE­LOW RIGHT: Le­bo­hang en­joys tak­ing part in sport and loves...

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