So what took so long? After all, we’re talking about a country in which roughly 80 percent of the population is black, yet it’s taken 8 seasons in 10 years (the show debuted on South African TV network M-Net in 2002) for a black South African winner to be crowned.
Well, let’s start with decades of apartheid which enforced racial segregation, curtailed the rights of blacks, and maintained white supremacy, creating deep, and still lingering imbalances in wealth that made the country one of the most unequal in the world.
And for that reason… as the program has long and continues to be broadcast on South Africa’s M-Net network (via DStv), a subscription-based private satellite channel, the subscriber base has largely been white, because blacks in the country haven’t been able afford the necessary subscription fees (although that’s gradually changing, as more black people are able to afford luxuries like satellite TV); and since winners are selected by votes from audiences, with a predominantly white subscription base, it should be maybe no surprise that the winners selected each of the last 7 seasons have been predominantly white (there has been 1 mixed-race winner).
The show has most certainly had black contestants, and while some of them would make it to the final rounds, the crown has unfortunately eluded them.
Even the judges noticed this trend, and one of them lashed out against it at the end of season 6, when a white rock musician beat out a black singer by almost twice as many votes; Mara Louw, a judge at the time, said: “Lloyd [the black singer] should have won… Blacks do not have access to DStv. This excludes a sizable chunk of South Africans from the competition. Whites vote for whites and blacks are disadvantaged… I am sick and tired of being politically correct. The whites refuse to vote for blacks.“
As the New York Times notes, change is happening, as M-Net’s audience, which was once mostly white, is now starting to closely reflect the country’s demographic, despite that fact that poverty is still a major societal problem, within the majority black population.
“More and more black people have actually been entering ‘Idols,’ and more and more black people have been getting further along in the competition, and finally this year we have a black winner… This year’s winner was voted for because he was the best. But it is also reflective of the changing social fabric of South Africa,” said Yolisa Phahle, an executive at M-Net.
But it doesn’t end there; even with what appears to be progress, there’s still the matter of the kind of music the contestants on the program sing – mostly American top 40 music; some would prefer that contestants instead borrow from the country’s own local popular varied music styles and musicians.
“Every time I hear these people singing another Mariah Carey song I get tired… It is really a cultural catastrophe that we are not leveraging the stuff we are very good at,” said writer/photographer Victor Dlamini.
“It is not our music… We already have our own R&B and house in our own languages. Why would we sing in English?” added Phindile Maseko, a 35-year-old social worker.
Baby steps I suppose…
Oh, and by the way, this year’s winner of South Africa’s Idols, and the first black winner, is Khaya Mthethwa; one of the tracks he performed during his winning showcase was Nicki Minaj’s Super Bass, a song he had reportedly only just heard for the first time the day he performed it. The judges were blown away.
And how’s Mr. Mthethwa – son of preachers from Durban, who grew up singing gospel music in church – reacting to all of this?
“It saddens me that so many years after our democracy we still have to racialize things,” he said.
Here’s the young man performing on the finals episode: