Matt Pearce remembers friend and colleague Kaunda Ntunja: 'His legacy will never be forgotten'

From left: Matt Pearce, Kass Naidoo and Kaunda Ntunja in 2019 (Supplied).
From left: Matt Pearce, Kass Naidoo and Kaunda Ntunja in 2019 (Supplied).
  • SuperSport commentator Matt Pearce shares his memories of his friend and colleague kaunda Ntunda, who died tragically on Monday.
  • Ntunja, Pearce says, would make time for young rugby players everywhere the SuperSport broadcast team travelled. 
  • On the day of the 2019 Rugby World Cup final, Ntunja and Pearce shared a conversation that highlighted the respect they had for each other.

When Springbok captain Siya Kolisi hoisted the Webb Ellis Cup high above his head on 2 November 2019 at International Stadium Yokohama, SuperSport's English commentator, Matt Pearce, belted out the words: "Halala, Ama Bokke Bokke, Halala!"

In that moment, a nation of 60 million roared back home, celebrating South Africa being crowned rugby world champions for a third time. 

It is not possible to know the detailed statistics of how many people he was speaking to as opposed to Pearce, but at the exact same time, Kaunda Ntunja was relaying his message of celebration, unity and significance to a larger demographic of South Africans in the form of his passionate, popular and poetic isiXhosa commentary from SuperSport's studios in Johannesburg. 

Ntunja, tragically, died in East London on Monday. The cause of his death is yet to be confirmed by the family but, in truth, the "how" is irrelevant. 

What is left behind is a legacy.

Today, SuperSport's Xhosa offering is more popular than ever, and Ntunja was instrumental in first establishing and then developing that all-important platform alongside his co-commentator, Makhaya Jack. 

As Pearce, a dear friend and colleague to Ntunja acknowledged to Sport24 on Tuesday, the now-famous "Halala Ama Bokke Bokke, Halala" celebratory line probably wouldn't have happened without the influence of Ntunja. 

"It probably wouldn't have," an emotional Pearce said as he shared stories of Ntunja and the friend he will miss. 

"It seemed to be such a natural thing to do as a term of celebration, which undoubtedly was inspired by Kaunda and having seen what his words meant to so many when Siya led the Boks out for the first time in Johannesburg.

"I think it's fair to say that Xhosa commentary, and therefore Kaunda who pioneered it, would have been a source of inspiration for that."

Pearce, who has been at SuperSport since 2005, has become the English voice of Springbok rugby in South Africa. 

He cannot recall the exact date or place where he first met Ntunja, but he looks back fondly now on countless conversations. Some were light-hearted and others tackled more serious issues in South African rugby, but all were lasting. 

"We were bantering about football on Saturday. The most difficult thing for me is that there was no indication that something was wrong," Pearce said, remembering that WhatsApp conversation. 

"He was a Man United fan and I'm an Arsenal fan, so I bore the brunt of his jeering quite a lot.

"We had some hysterical conversations and I will miss those. When Arsenal won the FA Cup, he told me it wasn't a real trophy, but when Man United made the final, suddenly it was this very important thing."

From the first time Ntunja was given a Xhosa platform on SuperSport back in 2009, he had been fighting for more. 

"He was a man of principle and of very strong opinions," Pearce remembered.

"Early on, I sometimes felt that he was being contradictory for the sake of it. If you said the sky was blue, he would say it was red and then we'd have an argument about it. But, actually, he had real conviction around what was right. As long as I knew him, he fought very hard for that, but also lived it.

"I know he clashed from time to time with the powers that be, but I think it's wonderful that SuperSport did create Xhosa commentary and that he and Makhaya grabbed that opportunity and made it second nature."

Commentating on Springbok games in isiXhosa was far from the battle being won for Ntunja, though, and Pearce remembers his passion to take the game to the masses filtering all the way down to grassroot levels. 

"I remember him really pushing hard for Xhosa commentary for Eastern Cape-based schools and Varsity Cup games. He would say: 'If Dale plays Queens and we only have budget for two languages, why would we do Afrikaans?'

"He was really passionate about using the platform to spread the word."

As the years rolled on, Pearce's relationship with Ntunja developed from one of colleagues to one of friendship and, ultimately, mutual respect. 

"Often, you get people who talk a lot about change and making a difference, but he really lived it," Pearce said. 

"Wherever we went as a broadcasting team, he would engage with young rugby players. He listened to them; to their challenges, and he tried to encourage them.

"He was so passionate about the Eastern Cape."

Beyond the commentary box, and after the success of his playing days, Ntunja also hosted the magazine talk show Phaka.

"I remember last year how happy he was that Phaka was the first [SuperSport] show ahead of the new season to have confirmation of a broadcast sponsor. It was another big tick in broadening the reach of the game," said Pearce. 

"Every single person I have spoken to, bar none, who watches the game in Xhosa commentary has the highest regard for his poetry.

"There was a sheer joy in being able to broadcast to his own audience that just got him and understood the context and the significance of what he was saying.

"He has created a legacy and platform that will never be forgotten."

Ahead of the Rugby World Cup final in 2019, on the morning of the game, Ntunja and Pearce shared a conversation over text message. 

Pearce was in the team hotel in Yokohama, while Ntunja and the rest of South Africa were holding their collective breath and counting down the hours until kick-off. 

"All the best today, Matt. I'm nervous as hell for Siya, I won't lie," Ntunja wrote. 

Pearce then responded to him by saying he was more nervous than the team, highlighting their impressive mental state and sharing his visuals of Kolisi handing a No 6 jersey to President Cyril Ramaphosa. 

"I also keep getting emotional when I think of the occasion. It's going to be an honour and privilege working on this match," Ntunja replied. 

"Send my regards to your commentary team. Tell them we'll be making a noise this side."

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