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A tribute to rugby commentator Kaunda ‘Zizi’ Ntunja

A tribute to rugby commentator Kaunda ‘Zizi’ Ntunja
Kaunda Ntunja during the Absa Currie Cup match between The Sharks and MTN Golden Lions at Growthpoint Kings Park on 16 August 2013 in Durban. (Photo: Steve Haag / Gallo Images)

Reading tributes and hearing stories about Kaunda Ntunja (aka Bev aka Zizi) has revealed to us what a giant he was in the space he chose to occupy – that of championing inclusivity in rugby. And he was even more than that.

Kaunda Ntunja was not only a voice for black rugby, but used his platform to help develop black players and coaches and to be an outspoken agitator for the provision of opportunities for this same black talent. Few of us appreciate just how important he was to many people who will never have the privilege of testifying publicly to his influence. One seldom encounters talent as incandescent as that of the young Kaunda. 

The lockdown and accompanying dearth of live sport sparked an avalanche of nostalgic conversation, not least the “greatest ever” debates on Facebook, Twitter and WhatsApp groups. In discussions I was privy to, Kaunda’s name was a mainstay in selections of greatest-ever schoolboy XVs put forward by self-styled rugby historians. There were stories from teammates about Dalians cheering in unison “GIVE NTUNJA THE BALL!” and the resulting carnage from ball carries that were in equal measure cheetah-like in their skill and dexterity and rhino-like in their aggression and destruction. 

He was a guaranteed source of forward momentum and he created chances for his teammates to shine and advance. Stories told of how the Herculean figure would run up to the opposition crowd with a mouthful of water, look up and spray it toward the heavens like the wrestler Triple-H, then stare the stand down briefly, intimidating an entire school.

These antics were typical of a young boy with a penchant for drama who would later feature in a nationally acclaimed drama series. (It is worth noting that Kaunda studied toward a BA in dramatic arts at Wits University while turning out in the royal blue jumper of the Kudus.) He was the kind of man who would honour a request to be MC at a friend’s wedding at the drop of a hat; the kind of man who would even commentate a tequila race between two friends on a night out.

Bev’s rugby exploits and his burning passion for the game are well documented and often inspired the ire of those who had seen what an extraordinarily gifted junior he’d been in a system that failed to recognise and back such a talent to the very highest level. One might be forgiven for expecting Kaunda to have bitterness about his unfulfilled potential as a player, but you would be mistaken. Kaunda was, quite literally, living his dream.

In the very early days of Xhosa rugby commentary on Supersport, Kaunda spoke excitedly about the phrases and theatrics he wanted to introduce and how he idolised Umhlobo Wenene’s Mthuthuzeli Scott. At that time I asked him how he felt about commentating on Springbok games featuring guys he’d once captained at SA Schools and SA U19 levels — Fourie du Preez, Enrico Januarie and others — and he replied nonchalantly, “Tshezi, even when I was at school I was happiest in the drama club, even more than when I was on the field.”

This reply was initially surprising, but made complete sense when I thought about it. If one paid attention one would recognise that theatre was Kaunda’s true gift. It poured out of him effortlessly in every sphere of his life. It was in commentating and using his theatrical gifts in the game that he excelled. Pioneering and anchoring platforms like Phaka spoke to his sense of purpose as an enabler for others who shared his passion. Bev found his raison d’etre.

His praise poetry has added emotional depth and volume to some of the most epochal moments in contemporary South African rugby history and his inimitable style will ring forever in our memories. Those familiar with the movie Troy will remember Achilles being called in to settle a battle in one-on-one combat with the opposition’s champion. As Manchester United supporters, we are now left exposed because we have lost our Achilles. Kaunda was indomitable and had a retort for anything thrown his way; ready for banter whether United were winning or not. He was a sight to behold when United were doing well, though.

Kaunda was a classic “connector” and built a football-supporting community around him. Weeks were characterised by people hanging on the result of a football game; they couldn’t wait to rush to Facebook to take on Kaunda when United lost and dreaded his barrage when United won. He made the experience of following English football immeasurably more intense, absorbing and enjoyable — regardless of which team you supported.

I had the pleasure of collaborating with and being supported by uZizi as a member of the Gwijo Squad. Kaunda used his platform to give this central aspect of black rugby culture, the singing of amagwijo, as much fuel as he could muster to bring it into the mainstream of the South African rugby experience. Zizi felt responsible for advancing the recognition of all aspects of black rugby history and culture, seeing them as important and legitimate as white rugby history and culture in South Africa.

What an extraordinary contribution he made in such a short time. What an incredible loss to the country, the South African rugby fraternity, his friends and colleagues and, most importantly, his family. A great spirit has been taken from us before we had the chance to celebrate him and demonstrate to him his significance to all of us.

Phumla ntsika yomzi ontsundu, uyidlalile imdima yakho. Izinyanya zakwa Dlamini zikubize singekoneli bubukho bakho. Siyakuhlala sikukhumbula kwaye sibhiyozela umsebenzi omkhulu owenzileyo

A giant who had done so much, still with so much to do, gone far too soon and we are all poorer for it. In the words of the great man himself, “Smash and grab! Smash and grab! It’s a smash grab!” Lala ngoxolo Jama ka SijaduDM/MC

Chulumanco Macingwane is chairperson of Gwijo Squad, a former vice-chairman of Wits Rugby and a former rugby analyst for the SABC.

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