Arts and Culture

Come Dine with Me SA: Race on the menu

Yunus Momoniat

Come Dine with Me SA is far more than bad TV -- it's a fascinating look into the state of race relations.

Race and politics are on the menu in Come Dine with Me SA. (Supplied)

If you think watching Come Dine with Me SA is about food, you’re deluded in the extreme. It’s really about race and politics. It’s civilisational conflict masquerading as a culinary contest.

Part of the fun, and the malice, of watching the reality show is deciding whether you like the characters, and why. There’s the now famous blue-eyed Puleng, universally decried as brain-cell challenged; there’s Hebrew, who smuggled an earthworm into his dish to subvert his competitor’s evening.

Watching the show becomes an exercise in judging citizens of the new South Africa as they try to impress each another and viewers with their gastric fixes. In the Pretoria mopani worm episode, I found myself ultimately disliking all four contestants — perhaps my misanthropy is beyond repair.

The accounts that each candidate  presents of themselves don’t help; people rarely get themselves right. Or it could be that the unnatural exposure fails to do justice to the poor, no doubt complicated, suckers.

And suck on food they certainly do, mostly on fairly plain dishes given foreign, exotic names in European languages — French has been the most prominent, as one would expect of upwardly mobile globalisers. Durban’s Millie serves up a chicken pie Frenchified as a vol-au-vent, although she seemed quite likeable in other respects.

Gastronomic hegemony
Eating involves a profound process of ingestion that is both physiological and psychological — the opposite of vomiting. So when two Afrikaners are presented with mopani worms, they balk. No matter how it is prepared, the worm is a form of nutrition not classed as food by Afrikaners, and eating this worm in post-apartheid South Africa is submitting to a new gastronomic hegemony. Their reaction inspires another contestant to repeat the gesture and force the worm unknowingly down their throats the next night.

The relations that emerge in this psychology lab are indeed fascinating. Take the “celebrity” episode’s Lerato Sengidi, a Big Brother contestant: black, sophisticated and, quite frankly, repulsive — a third-generation Felicia Mabuza-Suttle. My mother remarks that she “acts just like a white”. I try to explain that that’s how many young black people talk these days, but then she asks more questions that defeat my explanatory capacity.

But something else is going on here: Lerato is playing white South African, she simulates post-apartheid sophistication. Ponder a little deeper and it’s not sophistication but rather a determination never to be perceived as inferior in any way, even in fields in which she is a novice. Such is the intensity of the former, lingering power structure.

Episodes are set in South African cities, and participants have the others over for home-cooked meals. The regional settings allow us to survey the national scene: we speculate about the manner in which cities shape taste, character and quirks. Sometimes our stereotypes are shattered but often, lamentably, they are confirmed. The producers’ stereo­types are certainly on show — in Durban they choose Indians, in Cape Town coloureds, but the contestants have been overwhelmingly white, especially in the first series. Eating is a universal thing, but dining must be a white “thang”.

It’s even more interesting when the contestants themselves betray their stereotyped ideas about their countrymen, which often happens in the one-on-ones with the cameraman, lighting technician and director. Here we are given access to prejudice in its pure form, a curiously satisfying experience. One white contestant doesn’t like “curry”, the word clearly a cipher for “Indians”.

One would expect that racial solidarity would overtake other forms of bonding but in some episodes alliances are created across race and class. But the contestants never forget that they are under scrutiny, the camera is always in the room. They aren’t allowed to betray their racial socialisations, and they present themselves as non-racial, non-sexist, unhomophobic — all the qualities our Constitution wants to make a reality.

Years ago, it would have been unthinkable for white and black South Africans to dine together. Today, despite the democratic dream in which we are spectres, it is still a rare thing. Democracy allows us to persist in our apartheid habits, but this time as a matter of choice. It takes a BBC competition to achieve, on the smallest scale, what 18 years of freedom have failed to bring about.

In the second season, the organisers spiced up the formula by choosing contestants who have attitude, in contrast with the first series’ more pedestrian characters.

Postmodern idiots cultivate this difference from the norm in such numbers that the anomaly has become the new norm.  In the process, these new blacks, whites, Indians and coloureds have all acquired attitude, all of them alike, ­democratic morons in thrall to mini-stardom.

The final episode of the second season of Come Dine with Me SA will be aired on December 10 on BBC Entertainment at 8pm

An earlier version of this story used the incorrect name of a contestant. We are in the process of finding the correct name. We apologise for the confusion.

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