Kaunda Ntunja | Champagne isiXhosa takes Springbok commentary to new heights

Sparkling success, Kaunda Ntunja has everyone hanging on his every word. Picture: Deon Raath
Sparkling success, Kaunda Ntunja has everyone hanging on his every word. Picture: Deon Raath

Last year Tinus Van Staden interviewed the extraordinary Kaunda Ntunja and found out what it meant to be in hot seat as the Springboks won the Rugby World Cup. 

On Monday July 20, Kaunda passed away at the young age of 38 with his sister Tando confirming the tragic news. 

The below was published in City Press on November 24 2019. 


The [Rugby World Cup] final was everything to me. Joh. I have never before prepared as much as I did for that final. I put my heart and soul into it.
Kaunda Ntunja

‘Liqhashu!” Kaunda Ntunja roared when Makazole Mapimpi dotted the ball down behind England’s try line.

“Ibubbly, shampompo, shampizi!” A lyrical war cry. “Izinto ezihlwahlwazayo!” The words took flight, flew like Mapimpi to the try line in South Africans’ hearts. Ntunja’s words came to life – at first only for those watching the Rugby World Cup live with isiXhosa commentary, on SuperSport.

Then they wiped out the racial and language boundaries on Twitter, sidestepped the defences of those sowing dissent and division.

Even if you did not understand what was being said, its joy became your own.

“Liqhashu – the sparkling wine’s cork popping.”

The great Ntunja sat in a quiet SuperSport studio last week, deciphering his piece of commentary on Mapimpi’s try. He looks proudly at the footage on his cellphone screen in the cool studio. Television equipment is everywhere. On the big screens behind him is the logo for the Xhosa rugby talk show Phaka.

“Ibubbly, shampompo, shampizi – sparkling wine. Izinto ezihlwahlwazayo – things that sparkle.”

And how the springboks sparkled. Ntunja too.

“The final was everything to me,” said Ntunja, his big hands folded on the desk where the presenters usually sit. He’s in his element.

“Joh, I have never before prepared as much as I did for that final. I put my heart and soul into it.”

It was the pièce de résistance of the 37-year-old from Butterworth in the Eastern Cape. When his rugby career did not reach the heights that this former SA Under-19 captain and flanker dreamed of, he decided to become a “Springbok commentator”.

He has long since acquired his colours behind the microphone and has won numerous prizes. But, on November 2, he gave a performance worthy of a Webb Ellis trophy.

“My failures as a player led me to become a broadcaster. I might not have been a successful broadcaster had I been a successful rugby player. I might have taken things for granted,” he said.

But he doesn’t. Not after the road he has had to walk.

His rugby life began in the fast lane, but was later forced to a halt by injuries. He played for the South African Under-19 team for two years. In 2001, he led the team – a team that included future Bok captain Fourie du Preez.

He played junior rugby for the Sharks, after which he moved to the Free State in 2004. There, Ntunja met the man who is now the “Bok messiah”.

I went to an audition and it was a disaster. Fortunately, the people who listened to my audition didn’t understand isiXhosa. I think they just wanted to see if I knew the names of the players
Ntunja

“Rassie [Erasmus] was still a player, but already pulled the strings. It was a funny situation. Uncle Peet Kleynhans was the coach, but Rassie planned many of the moves and took control in the video sessions.”

After two years with Free State, he joined the Southern Spears. The Spears would later become the Kings but, at the time, uncertainty and controversy flattened the team before it could get going properly.

Ntunja returned to Border, where he caught the eye of Lions coach Loffie Eloff.

“I played well in a curtain-raiser against the Lions, and Loffie approached me. He said there were no guarantees, but he wanted me in his group.”

Ntunja started to dream big Golden City dreams.

“I had other plans for Joburg ... I wanted to play rugby, yes, but because I was studying drama and theatre, I thought, yeah, if I’m in Joburg, I can look for a role in Generations, or wherever.”

At a golf day in the preseason of the 2008 Super Rugby Series, his path crossed that of SuperSport commentator Owen Nkumane. He arranged for Ntunja to audition to become an English commentator, which is how Ntunja got his foot in the door at SuperSport. He was still contracted with the Lions until 2009, but injuries kept him on the sidelines.

His life changed again when the British Lions came to tour South Africa in 2009.

“SuperSport asked if I wanted to broadcast in isiXhosa.” It was a first for the channel.

“I first said no, because even though isiXhosa is my mother tongue, I never studied it at school [Dale College in King William’s Town]. But I sat down and thought. My rugby career was not going anywhere, so it could be a golden opportunity.

The older generation of Xhosa commentators are also very good, but they use expressions that originated in a rural life. For example, if the referee plays advantage for a long time and then blows his whistle, they will say something that can literally be translated as: ‘We will go back to where the calf died. We go back to where the trouble started.’
Ntunja

“I went to an audition and it was a disaster. Fortunately, the people who listened to my audition didn’t understand isiXhosa. I think they just wanted to see if I knew the names of the players. They played a match between South Africa and Australia. If Butch James had the ball, they wanted to hear me say Butch James.

“SuperSport took a chance and let me work with Makhaya Jack, who played in the apartheid years.”

His role as an isiXhosa-speaking commentator began with the match between the Southern Kings and the British Lions.

“My isiXhosa vocabulary was poor, so I bought a lot of Xhosa literature. I read, practised and recorded my voice in my room. I would get a video clip on my phone and spend hours practising it.

“I even struggled with the numbers in isiXhosa, so I worked on that: ‘Okay, 24 it is.’ I practised what to say if someone kicked; if someone tackled. It took me about two years to feel comfortable.

“By the time of the Rugby World Cup in 2011 in New Zealand, we were on course. Then commentaries in isiXhosa began to attract attention. Even presenter Anele Mdoda started talking about it on 5FM.”

Since then, it has grown to such an extent that SuperSport now has 11 Xhosa commentators, mostly younger people.

“Younger viewers are drawn to our comparisons and metaphors. We use modern culture and expressions,” Ntunja said.

“The older generation of Xhosa commentators are also very good, but they use expressions that originated in a rural life. For example, if the referee plays advantage for a long time and then blows his whistle, they will say something that can literally be translated as: ‘We will go back to where the calf died. We go back to where the trouble started.’

“Our younger generation still uses such expressions, but also new things, such as shampompo, shampizi ... These are slang words from kwaito music. An older commentator would not say that.”

I get so many messages from men and women who only watch rugby for the Xhosa commentary. It makes a difference, but free television can make a bigger difference because it has a wider audience. On social media, it does make a big difference when people see the extracts in the tweet

Renewal and modernisation were the part of his recipe for success. Of course, so was the passion with which Ntunja bridged the language barrier. Video clips of introductory pieces that he writes, such as his emotional tribute to Siya Kolisi before his first test last year as Bok captain, are also big hits on Twitter – not just for isiXhosa speakers, but for all rugby fans.

Ntunja is a storyteller. Of course he gets excited about tries, but he doesn’t shout for 80 minutes: “My lungs would give in.”

He spends a lot of time researching and learning statistics. There are several layers to him as a commentator and that is what distinguishes him from others. He also knows that he and other Xhosa commentators are an important gear in the machine that must drive true transformation in rugby – something he’s also passionate about.

“I get so many messages from men and women who only watch rugby for the Xhosa commentary. It makes a difference, but free television can make a bigger difference because it has a wider audience. On social media, it does make a big difference when people see the extracts in the tweet.”

It’s there, on social media, where everyone – regardless of race or language – enjoys his upbeat comments. His distinctive introduction ahead of the Rugby World Cup final was a great hit.

“The opportunity was so big. For Siya to be there and lead the team; so many people had to make sacrifices. I spoke about all those people ... People like Solly Tyibilika, who came from similar circumstances.

“You must also think of the 1995 legends, especially those who have died, like Ruben Kruger, Kitch Christie and Chester Williams. They lit a fire in my generation.”

When the final whistle blew in Yokohama, he was finished.

“I was emotionally drained. I couldn’t even cry.”

He had no power for shampompo or shampizi.

Ntunja was in Phalaborwa, Mthatha and Stutterheim last week to hand out rugby equipment to underprivileged children.

“In the Eastern Cape, people made a lot of noise about the isiXhosa commentary and came to me saying: ‘Ah, shampompo, shampompo!’ The influence is hard to explain.

“The people are rugby mad in the Eastern Cape and they needed a feel-good story to keep the spark going. Many clubs in the Eastern Cape are dying because of a lack of funds or mismanagement. For those people to see South Africa win the World Cup with Siya as captain definitely lit a fire.

“I don’t think the Bok team has been completely transformed yet, but a lot of progress has been made.

“Young children want to be the next Siya Kolisi, Lukhanyo Am and Makazole Mapimpi.”

But for Ntunja, it’s all about the Boks and their stories. About the Siyas, but also about the Duanes and the Herschels. Rugby belongs to everyone. In English, in Afrikaans and in Champagne isiXhosa.


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