My story of how I grew to love Survivor South Africa is far from a unique one. While early weeks of the COVID-19 pandemic put my classes and career trajectory on hold, Survivor SA became my “pandemic watch” to the pass the time. Those less certain times may have passed for me, but the South African Survivor series has come to mean so much more to me than a way to kill time.
From its inaugural season, Survivor SA quickly took my love of the series to new heights. The show has set itself apart with its diverse and memorable casts, unique twists, and underrated (and often unheard of) moments of greatness. This is the series that highlights everything I love about Survivor. I truly believe that Survivor SA is Survivor at its absolute best.
I watched the seasons in chronological order, and Survivor SA: Panama was able to immediately reel me in. Structurally, the season is admittedly a mess. The producers tried a lot of new things that we never see again, and most of it is for a good reason. The edit and strategy feel very old-school, for better and for worse.
Despite all of this, I always recommend that curious fans give this season a chance. Why? Above all else, the cast is fantastic. With only 14 contestants, everyone has a moment to shine. We get to know everyone, and they all bring something fresh to the inaugral season. All in all, Panama may not be the season for everyone, but for those who can appreciate an unconventional old-school season, you’re in for quite a treat.
If you have seen any recent seasons, you know the true host of Survivor SA is the one and only Nico Panagio. Now, what if I told you that he wasn’t always the face of the franchise? It’s hard to imagine, but for the first two seasons, the show was hosted by Mark Bayly, who auditioned to be a contestant before being offered the hosting gig. To put it simply, Mark is fine. He makes for a neutral-toned host that hits all the important marks while the show works to find its footing. I can’t imagine him putting an entire tribe in time out a la Immunity Island. If nothing else, the cast blatantly not answering his questions in the reunion makes for unintentionally funny TV.
Rana is the red tribe in the pre-merge of Panama. You’d never guess it from the merge, but they actually started the game as the underdogs, with them losing the majority of the challenges early on. A medical evacuation turned things around for them, and they were able to enter merge with the edge. This tribe liked to think of themselves as diplomats in a game of strategy and integrity, and it worked to a degree. They’d sit down as a group after every challenge to discuss how they could improve as a team, and no matter how often they disagreed (which was often), they stuck together in the merge.
It was both remarkable and aggravating to watch, the pinnacle of old-school Survivor gameplay. The Deadman’s Island twist highlighted the most flawed component of Rana’s style of play: their fragile social connections. This is why none of them ended up winning the game, but their journey throughout the season was impressive nonetheless.
If Rana was the brains of the operation, then the blue tribe Aguila was undeniably the heart. This isn’t to say that they didn’t care about the strategic parts of the game, but Aguila’s members felt less like game-bots and more like a tribe making the best of whatever situation was thrown their way. They relied less on discussions of honor and integrity and more on what would make their time on the island bearable. This mindset worked for them for a time, but Sanele Gumede’s medical evacuation took one of their best physical assets from them, leading to their disadvantage going into the merge.
Nevertheless, I enjoyed every scene we got of the top three Aguila members, Vanessa Marawa, Mzi Tyhokolo, and Brigitte Willers. They’re an alliance lost in time, but they’re one of my favorite trios in Survivor history, in part because of their excellent commentary. What’s more, they actually seemed to like each other, something I’m not certain we can say about Rana. They had some missteps, to be sure, but the heart of the show doesn’t need to be perfect; it just needs to try its best. And that’s exactly why the winner was from this tribe.
Burba was the merge tribe name, comprised of three Aguila and four Rana members. The tribe color was yellow. The merge started out as a standard Pagonging, but the Deadman’s Island twist put a stop to that. There isn’t much more to say on the merge tribe itself, as it really felt like two camps were living on one island. If there is one thing to look forward to, it’s the Aguila member’s general annoyance with Rana’s unwillingness to let go of their numbers advantage.
Without a doubt, this is the defining twist of the season. Starting at the merge, the players voted out lived on a separate island. The four eliminated players then competed for two of them to earn their place back in the game. As if this wasn’t bad enough, the two players returned at the final three, meaning it went back to the final five. Edge of Extinction who?
Final 3 and 4 Eliminations
In this season, the final two was decided by way of challenges. Instead of a vote, the player to finish last in the final two challenges received fourth and third place. Of all the twists we got this season, this is probably what annoyed me the most. Spoiler Alert: They do this again just for the final four in the next season, and it somehow has an even worse result there.
Sam vs. Mzi
This was the first real conflict seen in Survivor SA history. In the second episode, Aguila was riding high from winning multiple challenges, but tensions rose due to Sam Allerton trying to take control of camp life. This all came to a head when he confronted camp provider Mzi Tyhokolo. Once they lost immunity, it was clear to everyone that they needed to pick a side, and Sam was voted out despite his presumed challenge strength.
This was the main plot point in Episode 2, but this is a great episode to watch to get a feel for the rest of the season. It was the first time we saw Rana holding one of their diplomatic meetings, and the most important dynamics on Aguila began to fully flesh out. The premiere does an excellent job of introducing us to the players, but it’s here that we actually start to know them.
The First Med Evac
On a sad note, Episode 5 has the first medical evacuation of the series. Sanele Gumede injured his arm in an earlier challenge, which he single-handedly won for his tribe. Now his arm hasn’t gotten better, so production pulls him from camp to have it looked at. He doesn’t reappear during the immunity challenge, and no one confirms whether he is out of the game for good or not.
This is where early Survivor SA reaches peak insanity. Rana loses the immunity challenge, and it’s only after they vote out Danielle Vukic that we learn Sanele has officially been pulled from the game. And how do they close out his story? By bringing Sanele out with his arm in a sling to bestow his torch (his “life in the game”) to Danielle, who will now be swapping over to the Aguila tribe.
Aguila immediately votes Danielle out the next episode, so all of those dramatics were for nothing. This episode’s immunity challenge is also called “The Graveyard” and is every bit as insane as it sounds. So if you’re in the mood for a messy, nonsensical episode, this is the one to tune in to.
Everything Nico Did
You may be wondering what Nico I could be referring to since I’ve already mentioned that Nico Panagio does not host this season. Well, season one had a different Nico, named Nico Hinis, who is undoubtedly the antagonist of the season. He’s certainly the antagonist of Aguila. His antics are some of the most noteworthy parts of the early game, including but not limited to: arguing with his tribemates about voting for him, smuggling in cigarettes and matches, and dropping insane quotes at the drop of a hat. He’s a love him or hate him type of player. Strategically he was not very effective, but character-wise he was definitely memorable.
Panama will forever be defined by Deadman’s Island, especially since the winner comes from this twist. Rana and Aguila merged at seven, with four original Rana and three Aguila. In old-school Survivor fashion, Aguila was unceremoniously voted out one right after another. Truthfully, it was not particularly fun to watch, though the three Aguila members’ commentary on their hopeless situation literally made me laugh out loud.
Once the fourth person was voted out in merge (sorry Lezel), the ousted players competed for two of them to return. This was how Vanessa Marawa and Mzi Tyhokolo won their way back into the game, convinced Jacinda Louw to vote out frontrunner Gareth Tjasink, and respectively placed in 1st and 3rd. Is this fair? Not really. Does this go against everything Survivor purists hold dear to them? Probably. Was it entertaining? Absolutely!. So at the end of the day, I’m not really mad at the results.
The Final Two
Personally, I think Survivor SA was blessed to have Vanessa and Jacinda as their first final two. The differences in these women’s games went beyond their starting tribes, and those differences added another layer of intrigue to the final tribal council. Would Jacinda’s strategy or Vanessa’s social connections win out the day? Would the jury be bitter? Would they vote along tribal lines? Vanessa ended up winning in a 3-2 vote (yes, it’s a 5-person jury), but both women would have been fantastic winners to represent the season.
Forget everything I’ve ever said about Edge of Extinction because I’m all in on Vanessa’s win. Don’t get me wrong, Jacinda would’ve also made a fantastic winner, but I cannot help but thoroughly enjoy the underdog story we got as a result of Deadman’s Island. Vanessa was a cool, calm, and collected player that wasn’t afraid to stand up for herself and her allies when need be. Her social game kept her secure throughout the earliest parts of the game, but her annoyance with Rana’s sense of superiority in merge was hilarious and refreshing.
She seemed to really care about her tribemates, and her friendships with Mzi and Brigette were particularly heartwarming to watch. I know her win is not for everyone, but I found it to be a pleasant surprise to what would’ve been a terribly predictable merge otherwise. I’m not too confident that we’ll ever see players from the earliest seasons play again, but Vanessa is someone I genuinely believe has what it takes to thrive in the new era of the game.
Jacinda entered Panama ready to play and play hard, and that’s exactly what she did. Very early on, she was established as the undisputed leader of Rana, and she carried this confidence with her throughout the entire game. Her ally Gareth may have dominated in the challenges, but Jacinda took the reins where it counted—in the strategy. She didn’t always get her way, but she knew when it was essential to fight for her place in her alliance and in the game.
There’s an argument to be made that she likely wouldn’t have won even without Deadman’s Island, as she wanted to go to the end with Gareth, who probably would’ve beaten anyone. But Deadman’s Island did happen, and she made up for this mistake by voting out Gareth with Mzi and Vanessa. She was a great finalist and would’ve also made a great winner, but it just wasn’t meant to be in this particular season.
Mzi holds the distinction of being the first-ever fan favorite in Survivor SA history, and for a good reason. He’ll be remembered most as the undisputed provider of Aguila, then Burba, then Deadman’s Island, and then Burba again. But it wasn’t just his fishing skills that won viewers over; his blunt yet calm demeanor made for a welcoming presence on an otherwise structurally messy season. Even the most critical Survivor purist will find it hard not to root for him to win his way back into the game. Throw in how he and Vanessa maneuvered the Gareth vote, and he has more than earned his spot as an underrated great of Survivor SA.
Watching this back, Gareth was similar to Kiran Naidoo in that I was convinced he would win until he didn’t (ironically, also in 5th place). However, unlike Kiran, Gareth’s talents weren’t in the strategic portion of the game, which is partially what led to his downfall. He dominated the individual immunity challenges, winning four of them in a row, and was a genuinely kind and likable person to everyone. It seemed like everyone had something nice to say about him, and all of the original Rana members wanted to go to the end with him. And that’s exactly why he lost.
Three-way Tie: Lezel Crook, Brigitte Willers, and Zayn Nabbi
The great thing about this season is that every player has a moment to shine. With only 14 players competing, each player has a distinct storyline and fleshed put personality. We have time to get to know everyone, and it’s glorious. On the downside, it made it incredibly difficult to choose between the remaining merge contestants. They all contributed something to the story of the season, and leaving any of them out makes the story feel incomplete.
Lezel was a strong-willed and, at times, overbearing player whose mind was always on the game. Perhaps she lacked the tact to pull off the more subtle nuances of Survivor, but no one knew that “it’s just a game” more than her. Brigette was a pleasant surprise as the season progressed. She was on the outs when she was close with Sam, but as soon as he was voted out, she was able to build a solid alliance with Mzi and Vanessa. Deadman’s Island Brigitte is my favorite Brigette, and her confessionals alone provide a case to bring the twist back (but please never do).
Meanwhile, Zayn was a difficult player to pin down. At times he felt like the most rational player on Rana; at other times, he was the most irritating. If there’s one player that defines the season theme of Head vs. Heart, it’s Zayn. It’s a dilemma that he struggled with all season, but he seemed to make up his mind when he was the only jury member to vote outside tribal lines. As he said in his voting confessional, Survivor is a game about heart, and Vanessa had it in abundance.
Survivor SA was a very different game in its debut season. The South African franchise has come a long way since Panama, and most of it is for the best. The gameplay is more unpredictable, the twists are structured better, and the final product is finer quality. But one thing that has always been great about Survivor SA is their casts, and this one is no exception.
For that reason alone, I recommend giving this season a try. Panama has a charm to it that makes it an overall easy and enjoyable watch. Provided that the viewer does not take the show or its one-time twist too seriously, they will likely find at least one player to be invested in. Despite all of its flaws, this season has a lot of charm. If you also believe that Survivor is all about heart, this just might be the season for you.