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Sunday Times STLive By Charl Blignaut, 2010-10-10

Amazing Race

Eight thousand people auditioned for idols this year, double last year's figure. The result is a particularly talented line-up, a record number of viewers and a fresh flurry of angry cultural debate. Only South Africa, writes Charl Blignaut, could a race narrative dominate a talent show.

On the giant screens above the darkened Idols stage, the top nine contestants are enjoying a day of pampering at a luxury spa.

There's a sudden blister of screams from the gang of white preteen girls in the golden circle. They've just caught a glimpse of Boki Ntsime's bum, getting a massage.

When Boki starts to sing, I am even more startled to discover that the screamers had only been warming up. Young white girls love Boki. The banshee activity doesn't abate until he has finished his Justin Timberlake number, blown them a kiss and left the stage.

If one were to judge by social network activity or by a shriek-o-meter, then either Boki or the equally popular Bongi Mthombeni will be lifting the Idols crown this year, with Elvis Blue and Sindi Nene hot on their tails.

"This is the new South Africa. The race thing is over. It's played out," says Boki to the media after the show.

The following Tuesday, Bongi is booted off amid a Twitterstorm of outrage.

When I arrive at the Idols mansion the next morning, the atmosphere can best be described as bruised. The house on the hill in Northcliff is more difficult to describe. Perhaps "Mediterranean old money" will do it. The pool area where I meet the contestants for interviews makes you want to order a piña colada, but that wouldn't be appropriate. The surviving eight are stunned by what transpired at the Tuesday Night of Death.

"I have a photo on my phone my dad sent me last night," says pretty Adeline Mocke. "There were three little white girls who were crying so much about Bongi being voted off. Their mom wanted them to take a picture with me and I was also crying, so in the photo all four of us are bawling about Bongi."

But this happens every year, I say to Adeline, because the overwhelming majority of Idols voters are white. The real issue is socio-economic. It's about who can pay for TV and who can't. Black folks comprise almost 80% of our population, but in M-Netland they comprise only 17% of Idols viewers. And audiences want to see themselves on TV.

"It's actually sad that people bring race into this," says a slightly upset Adeline. She says Bongi was one of her best friends in the house. He'd come downstairs and greet her with a, "Morning, Mrs Mthombeni". Adeline is 22. Like most of the others, she grew up in a democratic country with friends of all races. She can't understand why people would vote along colour lines. Born Free, perhaps, but . well, you know the rest.

"The man did everything right," says contestant Lloyd Cele. "He had the audience with him, the social networks all over him, he'd never been in the bottom three - and boom!"

"What happened?" asks Boki. "I don't get it."

That old Idols amnesia. Every season both the tweeters and the crooners seem to forget that we've seen this movie before. It happened in the first season when Ayanda went out early. It happened in the second season when the two white contestants in the first group of eight were the only two voted through.

By the third season, judge Mara Louw concluded that Idols was unfair to black entrants. Black folk couldn't afford M-Net and those who could were apathetic; white folk could afford M-Net but didn't seem interested in voting for black folk. Louw felt this was because white folk didn't regard black folk as equal. That year she was hauled to the Broadcasting Complaints Commission on charges of racism. The complaint was dismissed and, despite threatening to quit, Louw stayed on to pull out the thorny old race issue and wear it on her sleeve. And it wasn't the ugliest thing she wore on the show.

Then things took a turn for the worse. Last year, Louw reportedly received death threats from a racially-challenged Idols fan and had to hire in extra security.

It brings to mind something businesswoman Doreen Morris once told me. She, too, received death threats for being a TV presenter. She was the first black woman to read the news in Afrikaans on SABC in the 1980s.

I was interviewing Morris because she'd bought the Miss South Africa pageant. She told me it wasn't true that black women were banned from entering Miss SA during apartheid. What the rules said was that entrants had to have a driver's licence, effectively excluding young black women. By 1992, along came a beautiful coloured African woman with an Aquafresh smile and a driver's licence. Amy Kleinhans became the first non-white Miss South Africa. It was the beginning of the end of the tyranny of the blue-eyed-and-blonde. In 1994, Jacqui Mofokeng clutched the tiara.

In a classic South African pop culture twist, it seemed black contestants on Idols hadn't been warned they'd need a driver's licence to win.

And then in 2007, the pay channel slipped them one on the side. Karin Kortje became the Amy Kleinhans of Idols in a year the press exposed that the judges held a secret 49% of the vote. Kortje's win opened the doors for more coloured African talent - Jody Williams and Sasha-Lee Davids. But in 2010 many are still wondering where-oh-where is their Jacqui Mofokeng?

Louw vowed not to address the race issue on the show this year and then did, urging black viewers to vote after Bongi was eliminated. There was a brouhaha on the social networks, with mainly white folk telling her they were tired of the race story and calling her a racist. When fellow judge Gareth Cliff says it, though, he's not a racist, just a leftie.

It was Cliff who started the ball rolling this year after a breakthrough performance from Lloyd. "I feel it's high time that a black singer wins Idols. I hope that this year the public doesn't vote based on skin colour," said Cliff and off went the social networks.

By that, Cliff means a black African contender as opposed to an Indian, coloured or Asian one. It's a distinction that fellow judge Randall Abrahams makes short shrift of. "There have been black winners in the past - Karin etcetera. I do not believe in the concept of race - I make the distinction between whites (those in a position of privilege under apartheid) and blacks (those previously disadvantaged)," he tells me.

We all know what Cliff means, though. The truth is that all the winners of Idols, Kortje and Williams included, have had their albums bought by the white, often Afrikaans, market. According to Abrahams there are no "black songs" and "white songs". That may be true, but there sure as hell are black markets and white markets.

Mass pop entertainment always reduces a society to cultural clichés, but Idols' clichés play into a particular local context that makes them interesting. It poses questions that are bigger than the show. When will the rainbow nation become genuinely colour blind? When will we share a common pop culture that isn't bound by history? "Give it time," people say. "How much?" others ask. Until the Born Frees and the screamers are earning their own money to pay their own cellphone bills?

"Let's just remember it's a TV show. Nobody dies on Idols," says Cliff. It may be just a TV show, but the prizes are to die for. The winner lands a record deal, a car and R500000. This isn't a hairdressing or gardening competition. It's Idols we're talking about, the great pop democratiser. The show that can take a Texan vacuum cleaner salesperson to triple platinum, multinational stardom within a year, as was the case with US winner Kelly Clarkson.

South Africa was the second country in the world to produce the format. In the US, the show's ratings are in freefall. At home, they're booming. When I ask M-Net's Lani Lombard why we love Idols she says, "Because it's a konsert (concert). People love the entertainment and the singing."

It's true. When you arrive at the Mosaiek Teatro for a taping, it feels a bit like a church bazaar. Actually, the venue is part of a church campus. There are refreshment stands and poster-making sessions and a great mingling. I'm surprised not to smell meat braaing or to spot a stand with trifle being served from icecream containers. The mothers of the screamers are smart-casually dressed but can't resist wearing their Crocs. This, really, is a much truer face of the M-Net audience.

Inside, pockets of diehard fans outwave and outscream each another like a high school sports final at the end of a thrilling season.

On stage, Sindi does Mango Groove. She's everything she's made out to be and she mines a deep vein of township soul. It's going to be interesting to see what happens to her career. "Unfortunately, we all have to learn that life isn't fair," says Randall to Sindi. "However, if life were fair, come November you would be here in the final." If she's clever, Sindi won't become obsessed with winning, but will use the show as a springboard. Zamajobe, after all, only finished eighth, yet she's sold more albums than any of the winners. In the US, you don't want to win; second place sells to a more committed audience.

Boki and Lloyd are a different pop story. They're natural cross-over artists who will draw a "third" audience. They have the screamers behind them, if not the mothers of the screamers. Boki's name (from his Tswana grandfather) says it all. In Afrikaans it reads as "bokkie" (buck; sweetheart).

He's a charmza with a super-smooth voice and a true crowd-pleaser, performing a slowed-down version of a local house track. Lloyd does Parlotones in an inimitable R&B style. Raised in the ganglands of KwaMashu, he works in IT and knows what's what.

I bump into Cliff in the VIP area afterwards and he says it's a shame the three remaining black contestants felt they needed to perform white songs to attract votes.

Lloyd or Boki could actually win this year. They've landed in the top half of the votes for weeks now. Either way, along with Sindi they're central to the changing face of Idols. There have never been three black African singers in the top six before.

Their problem is Elvis Blue, a brilliant folk rocker and all round helluva-good-guy. Ironically, while the black singers were doing "white songs", Elvis chose a "black song" - Malaika's Destiny. Out of interest I took Zanele Tshona, our domestic worker, to watch a recording. She doesn't have M-Net but follows the show in the newspaper. Her favourite of the night? Elvis Blue. She likes slow songs and that night he sang a slow song.

Elvis had wanted to do his own song this evening - an Afrikaans version of Nkosi Sikelele. M-Net put a stop to it, saying they didn't have time to clear the rights. "A good thing he didn't," says Cliff. "That could've been the end of him."

It certainly would've been ironic if a white African boy singing Nkosi Sikelele was the reason Idols had its first-ever black African winner.