Without her grubby vest, shorts and signature kaftan,she’s almost unrecognizable as the woman who was unceremoniously booted off the island of hunger, pain and backstabbing. Palesa Tau now has an unlikely little friend she takes with her wherever she goes: the immunity idol she unwisely chose not to play on Survivor South Africa: Philippines. She perilously believed the island’s resident bully and her frenemy, Tom, when he told her she would not be voted off. However, as viewers now know, he was lying. But when we meet the tall, lean and glamorous Joburg-based radio presenter and voice-over artist soon after her exit, she tells us she has no regrets.

Yes, she didn’t walk away with the million-rand prize but a game is a game and she gave it her best shot. She outwitted, outplayed and outlasted her fellow contestants for 11 episodes, but ultimately wound up being the third person to join the jury.

Palesa (29) has no hard feelings about Tom’s duplicity either. “There was no love lost between us, so I guess it was to be expected,” she says, flashing a warm smile as she chats to us at M-Net’s Randburg studios.

The “unlucky” idol goes everywhere with her now, she says, and people are constantly stopping her to take pictures of her holding it.

“I am keeping it as a souvenir. It’s something I am very proud of – I’m proud of my successes and my failures because they teach me something about myself. And I am very proud of my immunity idol – it will be on full display in my home.”

If being on Survivor SA taught Palesa anything, it’s understanding the strength and endurance she possesses. “I feel like I went there to be reintroduced to myself and the resources I have within me to achieve my goals.”

 In the midst of Survivor’s grueling challenges and blatant betrayals, Palesa stayed focused on the prize and her biggest motivation – her son, Lwazi (11).

The boy kept her going on the island but long before the single mom found herself in the Philippines, he had inspired and motivated her to pursue her dreams with energy and zeal.

Palesa was in Grade 11 and just 17 years old when she gave birth to her son, and even though it wasn’t easy being a young mother, his arrival put the brakes on a life that was threatening to spiral out of control.

“As a young person, the direction my life was taking wasn’t matching my goals,” she says, refusing to say any more about the path she’d been on.

“But when I had my son, that grounded me and reminded me of the things I wanted to achieve. It motivated me to pursue them more aggressively.”

Palesa wanted to be the first woman in her family to go to university. She wanted to prove there was more to her than a girl who had made some bad choices. She gave birth to Lwazi on a Friday and was back at school on Monday to write her first exam – which she passed.

“I was determined to accomplish everything I had set for myself,” she says. After matriculating she studied sports management at the University of Johannesburg and discovered her passion for radio when she started hosting weekend shows at a local station, West Side FM.

She then applied for an internship at YFM and a few years later received a bursary to study at the Wits Radio Academy in 2015. After receiving a post-graduate certificate in radio presenting, she joined Vow FM (Voice of Wits) where she currently hosts a talk show, The Love Shack.

“We have conversations about life, love and sexuality,” she says.

Her son, however, remains her first priority. One of Palesa’s rewards after winning a challenge on Survivor was a letter from Lwazi that brought her to tears.

He told his mom how proud he is of her and how much he’s rooting for her.

He also told her he’d be going to prefects’ camp as he had been chosen to be prefect in Grade 7.

“And it wasn’t just that. Even if he had just scribbled on that piece of paper, I’d have had the same reaction because that letter came at the perfect time. Just to know that I was loved and had something going for me was amazing. After that, it didn’t matter what anyone would do or say to me because I got the extra boost I needed.

“Before the letter arrived, I’d prayed for strength and God heard my prayer.”

Palesa’s passion for life has been motivated by a story her mother, Thenjiwe (59), often told her about her birth.

“I was born four months early. I wasn’t supposed to live, but I did. That motivated me to live my life to the fullest and not limit myself or my dreams.”

Her decision to enter Survivor SA was a spontaneous one, she adds.

“I was at work on my computer when I saw the ad pop up. I thought I should enter because I’ve watched the show and it’s a great challenge, mentally and physically. So I grabbed my phone and made a 30-second video,” she says.

She made it through all the auditions and when she was told she would be going to the Philippines she started preparing herself. She didn’t spend hours in the gym or learn survival skills, she says – instead, she prepared herself mentally.

“Because I didn’t really know what to expect, I trained my mind to focus on the positive aspects of the situation and focus on the outcome, the end goal.”

She ate a little more than usual before departing, because she knew she’d be hungry most of her time on the island and “gave in to all my cravings”.

She speaks fondly of fellow contestant Vusi Mafulela, who was a rock for her.

“It was comforting to know that amid the backstabbing and manipulation I could rely on Vusi. I could go to him when I was feeling down and he would motivate me to keep going,” she says.

Tom, her frenemy – and sometimes outright enemy – has also earned her respect.

“I have so much respect for him because, say whatever you want about the guy, he knows how to survive. We had a lot of run-ins, to say the least, because we both have very strong personalities.”

And even though Survivor is just a game, “once you’re there, it’s your world and your life in the game feels like your own life. So naturally, when it’s being threatened, you react like you would in an extreme situation.”