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Monday, 10 December, 2001, 12:29 GMT
SA Big Brother reflects divisions
Winner Ferdi second from the right
The four finalists knew nothing of the 11 September attacks
By Alastair Leithead in South Africa

Ferdi is a white Afrikaner in his late 20s.

He is cheeky, arrogant, brash and drinks an awful lot of red wine but South African television viewers love him.

We had 300 years of racial divisions in this country and seven short years later we find ourselves with a lot to learn still

Carl Fischer
Ferdi has just spent 106 days in the Big Brother house and walked away a winner - with a million votes and a million rand to his now infamous name.

Like winners the world over, Ferdi survived for the longest in the "Reality TV" game show that locks away housemates for three months of isolation, asking the public to phone in and whittle down their numbers in weekly evictions.

But the antics of Ferdi and his fellow housemates, and what they have come to represent, has kept South African radio phone-ins buzzing and newspaper editorials and post bags full to bursting.

Politics

Everywhere the programme has gone it has been a hit - a media phenomenon - but nowhere has it generated the kind of response it has had in South Africa.

Sauna scene in the house
Steamy scenes kept the media busy
"It really is just a game show - a glorified talent contest," says Carl Fischer, the man who brought Big Brother to the small screen in South Africa.

"But in this country everything has some kind of political resonance because of where we've been and where we're going.

"The debates that we've seen raging outside of the house from commentators, observers and in some cases intellectuals, have been quite interesting and says perhaps more about our society than about the housemates themselves."

Shocks

Being locked in the house since August, the four remaining housemates evicted on the last day, had quite a few surprises when they came back into the real world.

Carl Fischer
The race debate says more about society than the show

After a lot of soul-searching, the programme-makers had decided not to tell them about the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center on 11 September, so that was shocking news.

But they agreed in the context of the show it was right to stick to the rules.

Finalist Nobesuthu Cele said if they had been told about the WTC crash she would also like to have been told about the death of leading South African politician and ANC stalwart Joe Modise. "Once you start telling us things where do you stop?" she asked.

Reporters at a news conference asked them what rate they thought the rand was at - they had no idea the currency had dropped so far against the pound and the dollar.

And of course they were shocked at just how big the programme had become in South Africa, and how much people across the country had been discussing and analysing their every move in the house.

Ambassadors?

The media has been full of it. There was Janine, the teacher from the Western Cape whose raunchy antics in front of the camera have led school governors to question if she was still fit to teach.

Then there was speculation that one of the housemates, seen drinking during Ramadan, was a Muslim breaking the rules and setting a bad example - Islamic groups promptly got involved.

It is that idea of setting an example that has been at the heart of Big Brother South Africa - in a country still battling to come to terms with the legacy of apartheid, a bit of entertainment can quickly become a social experiment.

Six white people and six black and mixed-race contestants entered the house - half of them male, half female.

People phoned an Afrikaans newspaper and said they would prefer to have the black guy as a role model for their children

Lizette Rabie
Stellenbosch University
The question people fell into asking was how would they get on? Just how far has South Africa come since the free elections of 1994?

The contestants became role models for each particular "group" people identified them with - not all of them were particularly good ambassadors.

"Given the race situation in South Africa people talked about it. In terms of Ferdi, the Afrikaans-speaking guy, the Afrikaans community is up in arms, asking 'Is that someone who really represents the ordinary Afrikaans person?'" says Professor Lizette Rabie, who heads the journalism unit at Stellenbosch University.

"There are many people who says he doesn't represent the norm, but there are others who really can identify with him. People phoned an Afrikaans newspaper and said they would prefer to have the black guy as a role model for their children."

Race

And Kobus Burger of the Johannesburg-based newspaper Beelt, is amazed at the level of debate and discussion that the programme has generated.

"People talked about things that they wouldn't normally talk about - it was a way of looking at themselves."

Confrontational racism was kept to a minimum, but the programme has helped bring issues to the surface - issues that Carl Fischer believes need to sorted out if society is going to progress.

"It reflects where we are as a country. We had 300 years of racial divisions in this country and seven short years later we find ourselves with a lot to learn still."

The fact that Ferdi won reflects on the audience - after all most South Africans hooked on Big Brother are the ones who can afford satellite TV, and they are still mostly white.

"A lot of the voting went along racial lines. Politically we vote along racial lines - largely still - and I think it will take a generation, or maybe two, before race becomes less of an issue than it is now," said Mr Fischer.

 WATCH/LISTEN
 ON THIS STORY
The BBC's Alastair Leithead
"The last night was quite a party and people there felt they gained from a bit of introspection"

In DepthIN DEPTH
BBC News Online's reality TV sectionReality bites
Keep an eye on the reality TV phenomenon
See also:

26 Jul 01 | Entertainment
13 Jul 01 | Entertainment
05 Jul 01 | Entertainment
23 May 01 | Entertainment
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