OBITUARY | Kaunda Ntunja impacted rugby and people

Kaunda Ntunja (Gallo)
Kaunda Ntunja (Gallo)

Kaunda Ntunja didn't only play rugby or commentate it; he impacted rugby.

Many will play it, even more watch it, but very few will impact the game in as profound a way as Ntunja did.

Ntunja, who died suddenly at the age of 38 on Monday, was a human's human – a buffer and a helping hand to those who knew him, needed him, loved him and followed him on various mediums.

Many knew him for his commentary, his lyrical and linguistic rhythm when he summed up historic moments, such as Siya Kolisi's first game as Springbok captain in 2018, but few knew him for his humanity.

LISTEN | Kaunda Ntunja: A voice of South African rugby

Ntunja cared deeply about people, whether they knew him personally or met once at a rugby game.

He would stop and have a chat about rugby. But more than that, he was always keen to listen. He understood that another person's words, suggestions or ideas might spark something in him and, in turn, he would reciprocate with a brilliant idea of his own or a delicious anecdote.

He was a thinker of the game. He would digest people's views, always giving you a split second longer to finish your argument, before countering with an angle you either hadn't thought of or would not have known if you never played professionally - like he did.

I once accused him of being contrarian for the sake of being contrarian, forgetting his role was to always bring balance, make you see all available angles before making a final decision. He said I attacked him with my English.

Speaking to him about the ground-breaking SuperSport Xhosa commentary team, which he and Makhaya Jack originated (they called themselves "The Originals") in 2009, he was quick to point out that he wasn't always the glossy commentator everyone knew. Like everything else, he had to work hard at it.

"My language was never gonna be perfect," he said in March.

"You're always brought in as a commentator because of your knowledge of the game, not necessarily for your language and diction.

"And not having studied isiXhosa at school was obviously a huge negative on my part. But as I got more involved with SuperSport, I studied more books, watching news in isiXhosa and listened to isiXhosa radio stations all day. I always tried to improve."

Zizi, the clan name by which he was affectionately addressed, was a determined individual.

He once told GritSport’s Phila Bitterhout: "I failed in my first career as a professional rugby player and I told myself that, whatever I do next, I will be successful and I will work harder than everyone else."

Except, by all estimates, he didn't fail in rugby. He advanced further than thousands who've picked up the game ever had and pioneered a new prism by which the predominantly white selectors could look at black players – as leaders, too.

Born in East London, raised in King William's Town, but originating from Butterworth, Ntunja picked up rugby at 10 years old as a Dale Junior pupil, starting out as a prop in 1992.

By 2000, he was the captain of the Dale College first XV that had Lonwabo Mtimka, Monde Zondeki and Chumani Booi. That year, he became the first black African SA Schools captain, an honour that will live long in his rich legacy.

As a flank, he made it to the Border Bulldogs and Free State Cheetahs. He featured briefly for the Southern Spears, whom he joked "still owed him wages".

In the background, before it was even fashionable to talk about post-rugby careers, Ntunja studied dramatic and theatre arts and majored in screenwriting and creative writing.

This would later come in handy when it came to crafting spine-tingling intros for Kolisi and Lukhanyo Am, when the latter ran out as Sharks captain for the first time earlier this year.

As a Xhosa commentator, he won many plaudits and awards, including the SAB Sports Media Awards commentator of the year (in 2016 and 2018).

He'd be quick to put all that aside, if you asked him about the legacy of Xhosa commentary. He would tell you that the offering had 11 commentators by 2020, from just two the last time the British and Irish Lions were here.

He'd tell you, through Xhosa commentary, opportunities for gainful employment were given to Springbok Women's captains Nomsebenzi Tsotsobe and Mandisa Williams, to Mzwandile Stick before he became Springbok assistant coach, and to Kaya Malotana, the first black African Test-playing Springbok, among many.

He fought to have the vernacular offering to have the same respect inside Multichoice City as the rest of the languages and often risked his own job when going against the status quo and engaging in sensitive punditry on matters like transformation.

The popular radio show, Room Dividers, hosted by Robert Marawa, was another feather in his honour. The popular rugby segment, which also featured Springboks Thando Manana and Lawrence Sephaka, brought rugby's sensitive issues to the foreground.

They harried each other on the mic, bringing notes and audio clips as evidence to boost their arguments. Sometimes Marawa would have to play referee, but most times he was in the front row of riveting rugby debate.

It's because Ntunja believed, to his core, in fair opportunity for all and he was willing to help where he could.

Phaka, the magazine show he hosted, was yet another tool he used to let black people be heard and noticed. 

At last year's Murray Cup final between Durban Collegians and College Rovers in Durban, Mdantsane club Swallows were brought up to play a couple of curtain-raisers.

After the games were done, he pulled a few of them aside, including Siphelele Zono and Aphiwe Stemele, and advised them on how to crack trials at provincial unions. He took their numbers and said he would help them look for possible openings and see what was in the market.

The boys stood around him like young men do when the elder is speaking at the centre of a family gathering in the kraal. He gave them the one commodity money can't buy – his time.

Now that his time on earth has tragically ended prematurely, it's those incredibly human moments that he ought to also be remembered by.

He was, of course, a gifted orator and was poised to set next year's British and Irish Lions tour on fire.

How we all wish we could hear him say, "Liqhashu! yiBubbly! Shampompo! Shampizi!" one more time.

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