Last week, I foolishly predicted that OG Zamba would have the edge coming into merge. Given their intense loyalty to one another, the fact that the majority of them have attended the bare minimum of Tribal Councils, and Anela’s Tribal Insurance, I simply didn’t see how OG Vuna would be able to overcome all of that.
Let’s all laugh together at my expense.
Suffice to say, I severely underestimated the savviness of their rivals. They were thinking several steps ahead, outwitting and outplaying their counterparts. The original Zamba’s unwavering commitment to each other, combined with their utmost confidence in a plan that was far too easy to maneuver around, proved to be their downfall. And Marisha paid the ultimate price for it when she was blindsided as the first merge boot. Now Vuna has a leg up on Zamba, all while taking the biggest physical threat out of the game.
Merge episodes always come with much anticipation. This is where players are at their most vulnerable, where their social bonds are tested as the game shifts to the individual level. Quite often in Survivor, this is the vote that will determine the course of the rest of the season. The merge episode of Survivor South Africa: Immunity Island did not just meet our expectations; it set a new standard for future Survivor players, not just in South Africa but around the world.
One, Big, Happy(ish) Tribe
In my defense, the beginning of the episode doesn’t hint at much hope for the original Vuna members. Wardah is still feuding with Anela, and it’s a rivalry that will probably only get worse the longer they are stuck on a beach together. Unfortunately for Wardah, Anela would likely continue to be saved by his alliance members as long as the current tribe format stood. Thankfully this isn’t what happens, because the rising tension between the two has been drawn out far longer than is necessary.
Over on Vuna, Marisha wakes up early and stumbles upon a hidden immunity idol. She needs Renier’s help to retrieve it, so now it’s technically his idol, but they choose to share it with the rest of their alliance, meaning everyone on their tribe except Anesu and Chappies. While this is a decision made to strengthen their rapport with one another, it leaves few opportunities for them to have a contingency plan the moment things go awry for their happy little family. Marisha even openly declares in her confessional that their alliance should be safe as long as only they know about the idol. As Marisha and the rest of her alliance will soon find out, knowledge may be power, but they are not the ones wielding it.
The next day both tribes receive the Tree Mail message they have long been waiting for—they have officially reached the merge. Players are ecstatic to be reunited with their old alliance members and celebrate the game finally reaching the individual level. They will now be known as the Osindile tribe, with the most stunning shade of blue for their merge buffs. Most importantly, at long last, they get to take part in the merge feast.
On paper, the merge feast is a time to get acquainted with one another and enjoy the spoils of the game as a united front. In actuality, this is merely another test, the earliest chance they get to expose loyalties. Zamba’s cohesiveness that I was sure would get them through this round? Yeah, that’s actually one of the major factors in their downfall, and it starts here. Almost immediately, it’s evident to everyone that Amy, Nicole, and Marisha were going to be a dangerous trio that needed to be separated. Not only is it obvious, but it’s also incredibly off-putting to possible swing votes like Santoni and Anesu.
While the three women get the most heat for the OG tribe mentality, really, all of Zamba is to blame for steering any possibly Vuna defectors away. Marisha’s behavior towards Santoni, where she tells her that Zamba would keep her around for at least a few more votes, comes off as condescending and patronizing. Wardah has stated several times that Anela refuses to work with her in any capacity, and Shaun and Renier seem too attached to their alliance to make any noticeable difference.
Going into the merge, they all assume the extra idol will give them the edge, but they never consider that their rivals may also have one. Rather than establish outside relations to further solidify their path to the end, they act as though they’ve already made it to finale night. Whatever lead Zamba had going for them, they blew to smithereens.
Things Get Serious Before They Get Pretty Funny
Another player making the game more difficult for themselves is Chappies, who is both drunk off of wine and a quest for more power. He’s already been labelled as a challenge threat, and whatever time he hasn’t spent openly looking for idol clues, he’s using to aggravate his tribemates. Not even Santoni can save Chappies from himself here, what with him looking under placemats while people are eating and turning over every surface in sight. There was an idol clue present that he was so close to finding but alas, to no avail.
Shaun is irritated with Chappies telling Wardah about the videos from home that they received from the last reward, something they all promised they wouldn’t speak about. Chappies says he was trying to be encouraging, Shaun thinks he was being manipulative, and the answer is probably somewhere in between. This is where the game begins to toe the line between the personal and the strategic, which a few players have struggled with this season. At its best, this line of thinking makes for more interesting and unpredictable gameplay; at its worst, it’s uncomfortable to sit through.
Once Osindile reaches their newly upgraded camp, we get a bit of reprieve from more serious discussions to make time for hijinks. Turns out Anela saved all the clues from Immunity Island and planted them around camp to pass as fake idol clues. There’s absolutely no reason to do this other than to waste Chappies’ time and energy looking for something that isn’t there. Just as predicted, Chappies takes the bait like a fish takes to water.
In the new age of Survivor, we rarely have segments dedicated to camp life, but that doesn’t mean they are not sorely missed. Did the segment add anything really important to the episode? Not particularly, but I loved every moment of it, and it needed to be mentioned.
Bond. Santoni Bond. (Featuring Anesu)
Santoni and Anesu return to full force as the masterminds we all know them to be. After feeling ostracized by the Zamba alliance, both go to work to reestablish trust with Vuna. Anesu makes a particularly intriguing comment about how she’s ready to play the game she’s been wanting to play. As a player that shined in the earliest episodes, it’s refreshing to see her back in the spotlight. With many being so obsessed about maintaining original tribal lines, having players toy with their allegiances makes all the difference to this exceptional merge episode.
Up until this point, Santoni has been framed as the wildcard, a liability to alliances depending on consistent stability. Tyson gives an interesting spin to it, pointing out that Santoni is actually an asset to their side because the others trust her to relay information. His intuition proves to be correct, but not in the way he had initially wanted.
Santoni knows that Tyson has an idol because she was present when he found it. Knowledge is power, and Tyson wants to keep the knowledge on their side, so he emphasizes the importance of keeping the idol a secret to Santoni. Due to the fact that this is Santoni, this is not what happens. Santoni tells Chappies, then they both tell Shaun, who tells Anesu, and by the end of the day, Anela, Marisha, and Renier also find out.
Having the other side know about an idol can be disastrous. It ruins the element of surprise that is vital to the best of blindsides, but it works perfectly here. Santoni and Anesu are both able to use this information to become the most effective double agents possible. They don’t just spill about Tyson’s idol; they hint that the other side is looking to target Nicole. In reality, the plan is to target Marisha. Zamba eats up the intel like the merge feast.
Going into the immunity challenge, OG Zamba is planning to target Chappies if he doesn’t win, with Anela using his Tribal Insurance to steal his vote just in case. They dismiss Tyson as an option because they assume that he will only use the idol on himself. Santoni repeats all of this back to Vuna, none of them the wiser. And just like that, the stage is set for the first individual immunity challenge of the merge.
I can’t believe I’ve gotten this far without discussing Kiran and Tyson, the true MVPs of the episode. The dynamic duo is back to their old tricks, but this time they want as much insurance as they can get for themselves and their alliance. The immunity challenge is the pole one, a painful game of endurance that tests how badly players want safety.
Immunity Island is still in play, with the challenge winner deciding who to send (they cannot send themselves). Everyone’s biggest worry is Chappies winning immunity, but he does eventually drop, leaving Tyson, Anesu, and Kiran to battle it out. With the obvious target now vulnerable at tonight’s Tribal, Kiran sets their plan into motion. He wins the challenge and sends Tyson to Immunity Island, with the expectation that he comes back to keep his vote.
Tyson holds up his end of the bargain, picking “Give Up & Go,” so that he can bequeath immunity to one of his alliance members. Is it risky? Sure, but Tyson still has an idol, and he’s already thinking beyond this Tribal. If Tyson makes it to the end, he has tangible evidence of moves that no one else can claim. He had the idols in his possession, he went to Immunity Island, and he chose to risk his safety by bequeathing immunity to other players. While I usually loathe the talk of Survivor ‘resumes’, Tyson and Kiran’s rationale has made for some of the most groundbreaking moves in the Survivor SA franchise, so who am I to argue with the logic?
This is what makes Kiran and Tyson such a fearsome duo. They are both willing to take substantial risks to advance their games, and while they’re being presented as a duo, they’re always thinking about how their decisions will increase their own chances at winning. If this is them at the beginning of the merge, imagine how much damage they can do if they both survive a few more rounds.
Vuna’s gambit comes to its thrilling conclusion at Tribal. As they were expecting, all eyes were on Chappies as the primary target, and the preoccupation is where Zamba went wrong. Tyson bequeathed his immunity to Wardah, and Anela steals Chappies’ vote. After the votes are cast, Tyson calls Zamba’s bluff and plays his idol for Chappies. Going off of the information the double agents hinted to them earlier, Renier plays his idol on Nicole. Seven votes for Chappies are negated, and to the shock of her alliance, Vuna voted for Marisha, not Nicole.
It’s important to have a certain level of trust in Survivor, but when players overcommit to a singular path, they are dooming their game when plans inevitably fall through. As Tyson pointed out in an earlier episode, Zamba were the ones that began the fixation on the original tribal lines. This is what cost them their lead, as they were no match for Vuna’s flexibility and their endless contingency plans.
To be clear, I don’t believe we will get a straight Pagonging now that Zamba has lost Marisha. Santoni has stated her distaste for the tribal lines, and we have far too many self-interested players to have a stagnant merge. The rest is yet to come, but for now, I wholeheartedly thank all the players involved for giving what is being universally acclaimed as one of the best merge episodes in Survivor history. One recap can only do it so much justice, but they gave me so much magnificent material to work with.