"American Idol" has come under fire over the years for its supposed lack of inclusion, but that is nothing compared to flak received by the South African version of the talent show, simply titled "Idols," which in its first seven seasons never crowned a black champion--despite the fact that the population of South Africa is actually 80 percent black. But that all changed this week at the series' Season 8 finale, when Khaya Mthethwa, a self-taught multi-instrumentalist and church music director, became first black contestant to win "Idols." Even more notably, Khaya won by a reported landslide, with 80.2 percent of the votes, compared to runner-up Melissa Allison's 19.8 percent share.
It may seem odd, at first, that it would take so long for a black singer to win a show broadcast in a country with such a sizable black population. But in South Africa, "Idols" is broadcast on a private satellite channel called M-Net, meaning that the program's voting audience consists mainly of middle-class, white viewers who can afford the subscription fee. Additionally, votes have always been cast mainly via text, which costs money, meaning that poorer viewers (most of whom are black) have been less likely to participate. So in many ways, the imbalance of votes on "Idols" has historically reflected the imbalance of power and wealth in a nation still emerging from the apartheid system. Until recently, "Idols" has been harshly criticized over this phenomenon, with angry viewers accusing the show's powers-that-be of racism and even outright vote-tampering.
The unprecedented victory of Khaya, who was one-to-watch on the show from his first audition (ironically of "Super Bass," a song by new "American Idol" judge Nicki Minaj), has understandably been cause for celebration in South Africa. It has even been heralded as a sign that the times are slowly but surely changing for the troubled country. So congratulations to Khaya, and to "Idols," for making South African history!