Despite airing since 2006 and having six unique seasons under its belt, Survivor South Africa flew under the radar until its sixth season put it on the map in 2018. While most fans who indulge in the International Survivor scene are familiar with SA: Philippines, the other five South African seasons remain relatively untouched. Like the awkward kid who ate their lunch away from everyone else in the cafeteria, you’d be thoroughly ignored and left to finish your weird, Probst-free meal alone if you wanted to talk about them in fan circles prior to Philippines’ debut.
But now that Survivor SA is becoming more popular among the superfan community, it’s about time that someone put together a handy guide to the series to help newcomers figure out what Survivor SA is all about and whether or not it’s something they’d be interested in watching.
Think of this as a spoiler-free “cheat sheet” for Survivor SA. If you’re interested in watching these seasons without being spoiled by a wrong glance at the Survivor Wiki, this retrospective look at the series should give you a good idea of what major twists, themes, and format changes you should expect to see in each season. Or if you’re not interested in watching them right now, hopefully something will catch your eye and convince you to give the series a try at some point in the future.
Regardless, keep in mind that Survivor SA is its own series and shouldn’t be directly compared to other versions of the show. Enjoy the series for what it is and I think you can have a really good time.
Season 1: Panama
Location: Pearl Islands, Panama
“29 Days, 14 People, 1 Survivor!”
Major Twists/Format Changes
Penalty Votes: If a player quits the game, a Tribal Council will still occur, but the person voted out that night would receive a penalty vote at the next Tribal Council they attend instead of leaving the game.
Life Donation: In one of the more bizarre and oddly spiritual format changes, a medically evacuated player’s unsnuffed torch would be given to the next person voted out. If the two players were on different tribes, the person voted out would join the tribe of the evacuated player instead of returning to the tribe that voted them out. Ridiculous, but creative.
Dead Man’s Island: This twist functions almost exactly like the already maligned Extinction Island, minus the option to quit and the abnormally bad living conditions since it only lasted about a week in the game. After the merge, anyone voted out would be sent to Exile Island from the US Survivor’s twelfth season (I’m not joking, it’s the same exact island but without the giant skull) to await the chance to return. Until then, several minutes of each episode is spent watching the inhabitants do nothing but complain about being hungry and bored.
Challenge-Based Eliminations: In a twist that would make you almost appreciate forced fire-making, the last two jurors and the final two are decided entirely through challenges instead of voting. The first person to drop out of the first challenge would be eliminated while the winner would advance to the Final Tribal Council. The remaining two players would then compete in another challenge for the second spot in the final two. It’s as bad as it sounds, and I’m more than grateful this twist hasn’t been used Stateside…. yet.
My Verdict: I have mixed feelings about Panama. I certainly remember more about it than some other seasons because the cast was strong, and the editors told a good story, but it suffers from two things: a low budget and bad twists. It doesn’t have much passion put into it and was made as part of a timeshare with other international seasons – so it’s basically a “buy one, get one free” deal, made because it was incredibly cheap to produce, not because they wanted to make a good show. The challenges aren’t awful (apart from the SA classic of running and grabbing sticks that would become a staple in future seasons for some reason), but they’re nothing you haven’t seen before.
Strategy-wise, it’s stuck in an old school mentality, and you should expect a lot of honor and integrity talk from certain players who will make your eyes sore from rolling so much. And because it’s the only season in the series without idols, it might be hard to get over just how old school it is. But if you love classic seasons and can get past those downsides, it’s not the worst season ever made.
Season 2: Malaysia
Location: Johor, Malaysia
“27 Days, 16 People, 1 Survivor!”
Major Twists/Format Changes
Fan Selected Player: During the casting process, fans were allowed to vote in one player to be the 16th castaway via the show’s website. Survivor New Zealand tried something similar for their second season in 2018, and, of course, the US Survivor allowed fans to vote in the entire cast of its Second Chance season in 2015.
The Skull: Sounds interesting, right? Think again. This is Survivor SA’s original deadlock tiebreaker. The tied players would stand in front of a skull and put one hand it when they thought a set amount of time had passed. The person who touched the skull closest to that time would stay in the game. Compared to fire making, survival trivia, and drawing rocks, it’s incredibly dull and does nothing but pad out the episode with dead silence.
Challenge-Based Elimination: In a painful nod to Panama, the final four would compete in a challenge to determine the first finalist. The first person to drop from the challenge would be eliminated, while the winner would choose one of the remaining players to join them in the final two. A marked improvement, but still very unsatisfying nonetheless.
My Verdict: By far the worst this series has to offer. While it’s free from most of the terrible twists that plagued Panama from start to finish, the production value is still low, and the cast is full of lackluster players that make for an ultimately forgettable and unsatisfying season. And like Panama, the passion just isn’t there on production’s part, leaving the episodes feeling like schedule filler for the network to use whenever they needed to fill a time slot. In fact, it was so dull I actually wanted to see some really bad twists show up just to give me something stimulating to watch for a change.
On the bright side, at least it’s relatively short, and the plane crash inspired Tribal Council set is visually impressive. I’d never advise skipping a season because quality is subjective and you might find some worth in a season I didn’t enjoy… but if you jumped past this one after a few episodes, I really wouldn’t hold it against you.
Season 3: Santa Carolina
Theme: Celebrity Edition
Location: Santa Carolina, Mozambique
“27 Days, 18 Celebrities, 1 Survivor!”
Major Twists/Format Changes
A New Host: While the first two seasons were hosted by Mark Bayly (who applied as a contestant in Panama and got hired as the host instead because… why not?), Santa Carolina and the following seasons are hosted by Nico Panagio.
Exile Island: Producers decided to include this classic twist at random points in the season with various means of sending someone there. Usually an idol clue would be waiting for them, or perhaps the idol itself.
Kidnapping and Capturing: Instead of full tribe swaps, players would be kidnapped or captured at various points in the season to introduce new dynamics. Think Survivor: China’s similar twist for a good idea of how it works.
Public Jury Vote: The fans were given the chance to vote for their favorite finalist, who would then get an extra jury vote delivered live at the reunion in addition to the votes cast at the Final Tribal Council.
My Verdict: Okay, so obviously a celebrity season of a series that wasn’t great to begin with doesn’t sound that appealing, especially when it takes place on a former resort island and sets Tribal Council in an abandoned hotel of all places. And trust me, I didn’t expect much out of this season at all after how Australia’s Celebrity Survivor turned out (spoiler: it was awful). But coming in with low expectations was the right choice, because there’s a lot to enjoy about this hot mess.
It has interesting characters with fun personalities, celebrities who actually came to play the game, lots of funny moments, and the best Survivor player you’ve probably never heard of, who makes the season worth watching just for them alone. If you can look past the cheesier aspects and the “honor and integrity” circle jerk that’s unfortunately present at some points, you’ll have some real fun with it. Just don’t take it too seriously. It’s definitely a mess, but a lovable one with a lot of heart that I’d happily watch again in the future.
Season 4: Maldives
Theme: Celebs vs. Plebs
Location: Addu Atoll, Maldives
“27 Days, 19 People, 1 Survivor!”
Major Twists/Format Changes
Celebs vs. Plebs: This season has a mix of celebrity players and everyday South African players. The actual “vs” element of the theme only lasts for one episode before the tribes are swapped. It rarely comes up, so viewers wary of celebrity seasons shouldn’t be worried.
The Black Cowrie Shells: In one of the more intrusive twists the series has seen, one person on each tribe is “voted out” during a First Impressions vote. These two players would be given black cowrie bracelets, giving them a penalty vote at each Tribal Council they attend in the pre-merge. If voted out with the bracelet, they’d choose someone to curse with it when they left. The only other way to get rid of it would be to mutiny to the other tribe before an immunity challenge.
The White Cowrie Shell: At the merge feast, a white cowrie bracelet was hidden. The person who found it could play it on another person to cancel one vote cast against them, and that person (if they survived the vote) would be able to do the same at the next tribal. You just couldn’t use it on yourself. It doesn’t take a genius to see the major flaw with the twist.
Public Jury Vote: Once again, South Africa had a (tiny) percentage of the final jury vote.
My Verdict: This season is almost impossible to find online anymore, but it’s worth watching if you can sniff it out. It’s a step down from Santa Carolina in terms of pure entertainment value, but it still has a decent amount of fun characters and memorable moments along with a way bigger budget, allowing for complex challenge builds rivaling those of the American show. Some work, some don’t, and some really don’t work to the point of nearly killing people, but the passion is there. Speaking of challenges, if you ever wanted to know how “Last Gasp” could get even more traumatizing, the challenge designers decided holding it in the middle of the ocean and tying bags of bricks to people would do the trick.
It does have an issue with idol and advantage overload though, so if you’re a fan who prefers a more “pure” game, you might have a rough time when those things start shaping the direction of the game more than the actual players do.
Season 5: Champions
Theme: Honoring South African sports legends
Location: Somewhere in the South China Sea
“27 Days, 20 People, 1 Survivor!”
Major Twists/Format Changes
Tribal Captains: Tribes were “coached” by a South African sports star you’ve probably never heard of. The captains competed in challenges and lived in camp like regular players, but were unable to vote at Tribal Councils and couldn’t be voted out, essentially making them super visible NPCs. They would, however, join the jury at the end of the game and vote on a winner.
Special Guests: Various sports stars appeared as guests throughout the season, acting as rewards, helpers in challenges, and walking product placement.
The Salvation Cup: After the merge, the two captains left their tribes and lived on Salvation Island, competing in duels to win the Salvation Cup. This cup (or rather an urn) could burn one vote cast against the player of the winner’s choice at the next Tribal Council (and gave the winner a chance to grandstand about how morally righteous they were in front of the players).
Idol Stealing: Thanks to the most controversial rule (or lack thereof) in Survivor SA history, hidden immunity idols could literally be stolen from other players. Unfair? Of course it is, and there’s a reason it got changed in the following seasons. But is it entertaining? Oh yeah.
My Verdict: If you want a season with modern levels of strategy, Champions is for you. It’s got a lot of standout characters with memorable moments, a diverse array of challenges, a cool method of tribe swapping never done on any other English speaking version, complex strategy like what you’d see in a modern American season, and despite the title suggesting otherwise, doesn’t have returning players, making for a really solid season to watch on its own for newcomers.
However! The theme is horrible and intrudes on the season for no reason other than to show off South African sports stars for easy ratings. If you really hate sports and just want to watch the game, it might ruin the season for you. I’m serious. The captains inject their morality into the show and get a lot of airtime to do so, meaning a few players get bad edits as a direct result of their inclusion. But if you can look past the theme and get down to the actual season underneath, it’s a really great (if flawed) journey you’ll remember for a long time.
Season 6: Philippines
Location: El Nido, Palawan, Philippines
“39 Days, 18 People, 1 Survivor!”
Major Twists/Format Changes
Various Modern Survivor Staples: Those familiar with any recent US season will know what to expect: a bunch of idols, extra votes, multiple swaps, a random Exile Island, etc. This season has them all in healthy doses.
Juror Removal: Self-explanatory, it’s the same twist we saw in Survivor: Kaoh Rong, only the power here is obtained by winning the final immunity challenge instead of a reward challenge.
My Verdict: The cream of the Survivor SA crop by far, and the season most like the US version. I’ve seen it compared to a live-action Brantsteele simulation, and that comparison is spot on. Take the wacky cast of a train wreck season like Nicaragua or Gabon and throw them into an uber-strategic setting like Cagayan, and that’s SA: Philippines for you. It’s complete chaos, pandemonium, and messiness all the way to the finish line without a single dull moment to be found.
It has just enough twists to keep the game moving and the players (as well as the audience) on their toes but never pushes the limit to the point of over-saturation or an Advantage-geddon situation. With a perfect balance of meaningful character development, fun drama that doesn’t become uncomfortably dark, and well-edited, advanced strategic dynamics, Philippines can give any Survivor fan something to enjoy, especially those who feel alienated by the recent direction of the American version and want a high quality “modern” season.
A Closing Statement
And there you have it: a detailed guide to watching Survivor South Africa. Even if it can’t always match the quality of more the expensive and well-known versions of the franchise, Survivor SA has a rich legacy of its own and shouldn’t be overlooked because of smaller budgets and odd concepts. With a seventh season, Island of Secrets, airing this May, and host Nico suggesting the high possibility of an All-Stars season in the future, now would be the perfect time to check out this underappreciated addition to the worldwide Survivor canon and decide for yourself: is Survivor South Africa a box of overlooked buried treasure, a box of moldy food better left buried, or perhaps something in between?