Hundreds turned up at O.R. Tambo International Airport to greet Strauss after the 22-year-old medical student was crowned Miss World 2014 at a glitzy final in London last Sunday.
Dressed in the country’s national colours, South Africans waved placards, flags and portraits of Strauss in a colourful ceremony at the airport in Johannesburg.
She accepted a bouquet of flowers from a young girl in a wheelchair while one of her fans held a placard reading “Marry me Rolene”.
Strauss, who is white, is the first Miss World from South Africa since 1974 when the title was won by Anneline Kriel.
Among those at the airport was the first South African winner of the title in 1958, Penny Coelen-Rey, now a 74-year-old grandmother.
“We can be truly proud that she has brought the title back to South Africa,” she said.
Leading the welcome party, Sports Minister Fikile Mbalula evoked the memory of the country’s first black president and icon, Nelson Mandela, who died a year ago.
“We are a proud nation today,” said Mbalula. “Nelson Mandela is smiling on us, that his idea of a free democratic South Africa, a united nation, a rainbow nation is still alive today.”
Strauss stepped into the airport’s arrivals hall to deafening cheers and chants for a ceremony broadcast live by the three main television channels.
“I have no words to describe what I am feeling at this moment,” she said, adding that taking part in the Miss World 2014 contest made her realise how “powerful” South Africa is.
“The words South Africa mean unity, freedom, forgiveness, a bright future,” she said.
Despite South Africa’s bitter apartheid past, Strauss’s victory received an overwhelmingly positive reaction back home.
Lebohang Nthongoa, a columnist with South African newspaper The Times, chided people who had tried to play the race card over Strauss’s win by suggesting she is not African.
“I do not see what race has to do with her victory,” said Nthongoa. “We need to move beyond colour and treat every South African as equals.”
South Africa was barred from Miss World pageant in 1978 because of apartheid and was only re-admitted in 1991.
Miss World’s Steven Morley urged South Africa to take advantage of the Miss World title to “inspire the world” because it is now in a “very privileged” position.
“This will be the channel for South Africa going forward,” he told a news conference.
Strauss promised to push the message of “unity and forgiveness” during her reign as Miss World.
“We are also celebrating 20 years of democracy this year, so we are an example for the rest of the world,” she told reporters.
The Soweto Gospel Choir, which featured at the FIFA World Cup draw held in Cape Town in December 2009, led the performance to welcome Strauss. (AFP)