When South Africa's incarnation of popular reality dating show Love Island premiered two Sundays ago, it came with a predominantly – and disappointingly – white cast.
Airing on South Africa's cable network M-NET, the premiere episode drew backlash from within and outside of the country and across the Black diaspora, a collective sentiment highlighting the show's abysmal number of Black contestants.
The uproar is deserved, of course; the show's Black representation is very poor, particularly when you consider South Africa's 80.2% Black population.
M-NET has apologised for the lack of diversity in a tweet that seemed rather performative; the network already has a history of erasing Black people. The Bachelor South Africa, for example, has had only white bachelors in its two season runs. In a statement (via BBC News), a spokesperson promised that Love Island SA would bring more diversity as the series progressed.
Libho joined the show as a new Islander. But when other new contestants – Xavier, Chris, Sarah – were introduced on Love Island South Africa, they, too, were white. A video snippet teased on Monday that another white female contestant, Thaila, would be next into the villa. This further proves that the disproportionate number of white contestants was a choice by M-NET's production company Rapid Blue. Even the host is white: South African actress Leandie du Randt.
Dutch settlers in the 17th and 18th centuries are the reason for South Africa's minority white population today. They speak Afrikaans, and sometimes Love Island South Africa contestants can be heard mumbling in the language, which viewers seem to be turned off by. South Africa recognises 11 official languages but just English and Afrikaans have been spoken so far. The reason for this prominence of Afrikaans on the show isn't rocket science.
Bear in mind that the Love Island franchise began in the UK, with rigid parameters around beauty: men as muscled dreamboats and slender, clinically pretty women. So it's not illogical that Love Island South Africa would adopt this aesthetic. But the show is also portraying how colonialism and white supremacy have skewed beauty towards whiteness, internalised and perpetuated across the media and entertainment in Africa.
In Nigeria, where the franchise would later arrive in the year, dark-skinned female contestants could grapple with issues like colourism. Social media banter between African countries have produced outcomes where dark skin is demonised, and skin bleaching as an industry still thrives.
Colourism is more rampant in Africa than Africans would like to admit, which is simply prejudice or discrimination among people of the same ethnicity against individuals with dark skin tone. Put bluntly, it's a white supremacist attachment of value to lighter skin over dark skin. This was the focal point in Skin, a Netflix documentary produced by Nigerian actress Beverly Naya, inspired by her personal experience with bullying due to her dark skin growing up in the UK.
South Africa is peculiar because of its racial and colourist divisions. As the only dark-skinned female contestant, 26-year-old Thumni is garnering goodwill from viewers. Confident and personable, she has openly revealed feeling some connection with Chris in the diary room. But looming somewhere is Libho, who, earlier in the week, went on a picnic date with her and had warm conversations. In a flurry of tweets, viewers have been shipping them together as a couple, promising to keep them in the villa with their votes. This match-making, on some level, is viewers reckoning with the show's overwhelming white cast.
On paper, Thimna and Libho look like a good fit with the potential to be the show's first Black couple; something highly sought-after with viewers, as seen in the response to Love Island UK's Leanne and Mike last year. For Thimna and Libho though, more screen time is needed (and hopefully more dates) to further explore whatever is worth exploring. There's also a winning strategy here, staying together for the social media optics and ratings.
Is it too late for Love Island South Africa to fix its whitewashing? Unless every prospective Islander that will be introduced later into show is Black, it's probably too late. The media has a role to play in challenging racism, colourism and anti-Blackness, and one way the show can correct this in subsequent seasons is to simply take in Black persons during its open casting.
We would encourage anyone who identifies with the topics raised in this article to reach out. Organisations who can offer support include Samaritans on 116 123 (www.samaritans.org), Mind on 0300 123 3393 (www.mind.org.uk) or Black Minds Matter (www.blackmindsmatteruk.com). Readers in the US are encouraged to visit mentalhealth.gov.
Readers can also donate to the UK anti-discrimination group Stand Up To Racism, and the Unite Families & Friends Campaign, which supports those affected by deaths in police, prison and psychiatric custody. For more information on how you can support Black Lives Matter, please visit its official website or donate here.
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