As the Africa correspondent for the UK The Guardian newspaper, I have been most interested in your interest in a relatively mediocre South African cooking show, in which home cooks vied to become MasterChef SA in Season 3. Twice you have tried to spin a race story on finalist Sipho Mdlankomo, using her skin colour and her career as ways in which to bash our country and its people! Surely Africa could benefit from your writing skills in writing about our exciting loadshedding life, Cape Town making Best City in the world in your competitor The Telegraph, Ebola and its impact on tourism, the birth of the Monaco royal twins which have a South African link, etc.
A week before the MasterChef SA Season 3 winner was announced you started warming up the topic, by quoting Sipho in saying that she never felt discriminated against on the MasterChef SA set: ‘I didn’t [feel different] because my job doesn’t make me who I am, and I am totally supported by the family I work for. We all love cooking so besides us sharing that passion we all treat each other equally’. Yet you climb into the minimum wage of domestic workers, knowing full well that Sipho is earning nowhere near the minimum wage, is happy with her employer of nine years, and has received nothing but support and love from her employer family! To quote Sipho in your article: ‘Asked if domestic workers are too often ignored and under-represented, Mdlankomo replied: “They used to be but I don’t think so anymore. My experience in the family that I work for has been incredible and I will never stop being in contact with them and Liz and I may even do something together in the future’.
On Friday, after the winner was announced as Roxi Wardman and Sipho as her runner-up, you could not resist in bashing this topic once more, focusing on Sipho coming second (what was the news angle in this?), instead of giving Roxi (with an interesting past career as assistant train driver) the credit in winning! In your first sentence you described Sipho as a ‘black’ domestic worker – very un-PC, a description we locals would not use in fear of offending someone (try the description ‘Xhosa-speaking’ next time)! In your article you brought in negative aspects of Sipho’s career choice a number of times:
* the minimum wage of domestic workers, at R2065,47 per month for no more than 45 hours per week (5,5 days per week), without revealing to your British readers that in all likelihood this is not what most domestic workers are earning, and that accommodation, food, and clothing are usually provided as well, as would be paying for the school fees of the children. You are smart enough to know that the Minimum Wage is not the paid wage, but that would not have added juice to your story!
* Sipho was an inspiration for and liked by the majority of M-Net TV viewers, judging by the support she received on Twitter over the 17 weeks of MasterChef SA, despite not being an active Tweeter! Only a small proportion of South Africans subscribe to the TV station, so it is hardly likely that Sipho was an ‘inspiration for the country’s legion of underappreciated cooks, cleaners, housekeepers and nannies‘, to quote you! You do not quote a source to substantiate your claim, and in all likelihood it is untrue, due to the lack of viewership by this career group in particular!
* You suggest that Sipho is a champion for the downtrodden domestic workers in our country, but she has not made any public statements to suggest this at all. The family she has chosen to work with (rather than for, by the sounds of her relationship with the family) would never pay her anywhere near the Minimum Wage, and were the ones to persuade her to participate in MasterChef SA, even if it meant that she was away from work for four months to participate in the show. In episode 17 on Thursday evening, the close relationship between Sipho and the family was evident. You quote Liz Andreasen, her employer, as saying about Sipho: ‘She’s effectively never been treated as a domestic worker in our home. She’s equal to all of us. It’s a misnomer that all domestic workers are treated badly in South Africa. That’s not what we experience in our household. It’s equal opportunities for all’, yet it is as if you did not absorb what she said about her family’s relationship with Sipho! A work relationship of nine years reflects the happiness between both parties!
* Sipho talked about her own cooking show, and from episode 1 this was the dream outcome of her participation in MasterChef SA, showing her focus and determination to win.
* For the first time M-Net, via its headline sponsor Robertsons, gave the runner-up Sipho a prize, using R100000 of Roxi’s cash allocation of R600000. One wonders why this was done, as this was not done in Seasons 1 and 2, nor was this announced at the start of Season 3, and the list of prizes for the winner, as shown in episode 17, clearly reflected that the cash prize was R600000! One could say that Sipho’s background benefited her in this instance!
* Sipho is not the first Xhosa-speaking or other ‘person of colour’, if one can use the term, to have participated in and done well at MasterChef SA. Chef Benny Masekwameng, whom you quote, worked his way up the chef’s ladder to become Executive Chef at Tsogo Sun, and has been a most charming judge in all three Seasons of MasterChef SA. Chef Reuben Riffel worked his way up from barman at a Franschhoek restaurant to opening South Africa’s number one restaurant Reuben’s in Franschhoek ten years ago, and being a new MasterChef SA judge this Season. This Season saw more finalists ‘of colour’ than in Seasons 1 and 2, with five out of the 12 finalists.
It appears that you and your UK newspaper peers are doing your best to lambast Sipho and deny her the success she has achieved in coming second in MasterChef SA. The Telegraph beat you to it, at the end of August, with its controversial headline ‘Domestic worker on Masterchef (sic) causes a stir where household staff are seen not heard‘! The ‘monthly wage’ of domestic workers was vastly understated at £90, the poor exchange rate making the ‘wage’ appear even lower. At that time, the filming of Season 3 had been concluded, and the MasterChef SA fans did not know that Sipho would make Top 2 in December. The risk of not winning MasterChef SA by speaking to the media would have been too great for Sipho, as the legal penalties the contestants had to agree to were severe. To therefore state that she said that ‘She does not know what the future will hold, but in the meantime is using her high-profile position to advocate on behalf of domestic workers around the world’ does not ring true. Sipho was never controversial, yet was quietly confident about her goal of winning from day one onwards!
The International Business Times put even more political spin on Sipho’s participation a week later in September, with a headline ‘My South African Adventure: MasterChef’s Sipho Mdlankomo Heats up the Black Servants’ Debate’, the racist B-word used, and the word ‘servants’ being a very un-PC word to describe Sipho’s career! The article states: ‘But on entering the competition, Siphokazi intimated that her aim was not only to become a professional chef, but also to prove that domestic workers around the world were not second-class citizens and should not be treated as such. As a result, she is using her high-profile position to push the idea that they should be taken more seriously and held in equal regard to other professions’. I have written up each one of the 17 episodes of MasterChef SA Season 3, and I have no record of Sipho making any such political statements, which would have been likely to have been edited out by M-Net, the broadcaster which flighted the series. In the article the British writer Cath Everett, now living in Johannesburg, refers to her ‘maid‘, reflecting how far she is behind South Africans in how they refer to their staff!
In our ‘new’ South Africa of twenty years we are long past labeling our people on the basis of their skin colour, and you as a Brit should be even more correct in this. Why would you want to offend our people, and a lovely Sipho, who did fantastically well to make runner-up on MasterChef SA Season 3? She has no political motive to make a statement about her career or her skin colour, which you and your colleagues are pushing upon her. What is your motive Mr Smith? Do have nothing else to write about, than to find a racist political angle in the harmless home-cooking show MasterChef SA?
PS. I hope we will see a follow-up article on the Minimum Wage in the train driver sector?!