From the mag: Game changer

Emotive Xhosa commentary has provided a proudly South African feel-good factor to rugby broadcasts, writes SIBUSISO MJIKELISO in SA Rugby magazine.

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If the Gwijo Squad provides the soundtrack to our rugby times and Siya Kolisi is the lead character in our new Invictus, then SuperSport’s Xhosa commentary is surely the narration that ties it all together.

The rise of elite black Springbok players, coinciding with a historic third Springbok World Cup win in Japan, the cultural revolution brought about by the singing supporters group Gwijo Squad, Touch Rugby Sundays, East London 10s and Xhosa commentary – these are things transformation targets couldn’t script.

After rugby union turned professional, rugby was perceived to be in elite penthouses where the majority of South Africans couldn’t reach. But now, with every spine-tingling introduction Kaunda Ntunja gives, inclusivity has never been more visible.

‘Just being a part of this cultural shift in rugby is massive,’ Ntunja tells SA Rugby magazine. ‘The most spoken language in South Africa is isiZulu but the reason Xhosa commentary has made its way into rugby is because of the Eastern Cape and Western Cape, who have a very rich rugby history.

‘Other provinces, like KwaZulu-Natal, Limpopo and the Free State, don’t really have the same rich history that the Eastern Cape has. SuperSport were aware of that and they decided that their vernacular language offering should be isiXhosa.’

Radio commentators of the past and present, such as Stan Mosia, Peter Bacela, Mtutuzeli Scott, Mluleki Ntsabo and Zolani Bongco, have always had a descriptive air. They were entertainers but were bound by their medium to add the ‘visuals’. When Ntunja and Makhaya ‘Sir’ Jack picked up microphones for the first vernacular broadcast on paid television, their task was markedly different. It was in 2009 during the British & Irish Lions Tour to South Africa. Ntunja, though he was confident of his rugby analysis, having captained SA Schools in 2000, was not as bold in his language and diction.

‘I never studied isiXhosa at school at all,’ he said. ‘I could speak the language but I wasn’t confident on a big platform like that. Obviously, there is no commentator – Xhosa, English or Afrikaans – who is a professor of languages. You’re there in your capacity as a person whose knowledge of the game is of a particular standard.

‘My language was never going to be perfect but I started reading more books and watching the news in isiXhosa and always listening to Umhlobo Wenene FM during the day. ‘I’d pick up how people articulated themselves and izaci namaqhalo esiXhosa [idioms and proverbs]. I won’t lie, it took me some time but my use of the language really improved a lot.

‘I learned a lot about isiXhosa from Sir Jack, with whom I’ve done most of my commentary. Every time I work with him, it’s like I’m having Xhosa lessons. Now I’m at a stage where I feel pretty confident with my use of the language.’

When introduced Kolisi for his first official game as Springbok captain, against England at Ellis Park in 2018, Ntunja hit another stratosphere in his craft.

Phakamani eZwide! [Zwide stand up]. Phakamani eMotherwell! Phakamani eWalmer! Phakamani KwaZakhele. KwaMagxaki nase New Brighton [At Magxaki and New Brighton]! Ngoba lomfana wenu omele umz’ontsundu, umele thina sonke! [Your black son is now here to lead us all].’

He made the country sit up and take notice; to realise that Xhosa commentary wasn’t just about having a third language offering on your bouquet. There was meaning behind every step taken to diversify the sport.

His application to the craft and artistry of commentary bore fruit when he was twice crowned as the SAB Sports Media Awards Commentator of the Year – an award he might yet win again after introducing Lukhanyo Am in the most rousing fashion when the new Sharks captain led out his team against the Jaguares at Kings Park in March. Ntunja, who is affectionately addressed by his clan name of Zizi, turned into a praise singer for Am, whose clan name is Qhinebe (clan names trace your roots to your forebears and they are the most endearing way to address anyone in Xhosa culture).

‘Black children in South Africa are proud of their history. It’s one of the main reasons why they call each other by their clan names according to their cultural backgrounds. Our history and heritage are very important and, in rugby, our history in the game is very important,’ he poetically began as Am made his way down the Kings Park tunnel and on to the field.

‘Players who didn’t get a fair chance to express themselves on a level playing field because of apartheid crawled so that the likes of Owen Nkumane and Kaya Malotana could walk. Nkumane and Malotana walked so the likes of the late Solly Tyibilika, Gcobani Bobo and the Ndungane twins could run.

‘The likes of Tyibilika, Lawrence Sephaka, and the Ndunganes ran so that the likes of Siya Kolisi, Makazole Mapimpi and Lukhanyo Am could fly. Today, we have black players who proudly represent their clan names who are world champions. Today, the Sharks have a black captain who proudly represents his clan in Lukhanyo Am, who is from King William’s Town. The difference between Lukhanyo Am and the rest is that he’s the best in the business in what he does.,There’s no one better than him at the moment. Today, the Sharks are led by a legend of the game. Lead them, Qhinebe!’

Ntunja acknowledges that such an introduction would never have been possible when he started out in 2009.

‘Your language has to improve before you can evoke that sort of emotion. My background is in drama and theatre arts and my majors were screenwriting and creative writing. I’ve come from a very creative background. Those sort of openings for Siya Kolisi and Lukhanyo Am are right up my alley in terms of what I used to do as a student…

‘We’ve now reached a stage where some of our black players are not only the best in the country but the best in the world. That can inspire a youngster to want to be something great. Am is arguably the best No 13 in the world, so too Makazole Mapimpi at left wing.

‘Yes they’re black but they are operating at an elite level. You must not, as a black player, strive to be a Springbok or a Shark or a Lion. Your mentality should be to become the best rugby player. Period.’

Xhosa commentary now has 11 contributors since it began in 2009 – including Lonwabo ‘Black’ Mtimka, Malotana, Sindile Mayende, Alfred ‘Snipes’ Mzizi and former Springbok Women’s captains Nomsebenzi Tsotsobe and Mandisa Williams. But the partnership between Ntunja and Sir Jack is one that still gets people’s pulses racing.

Sir Jack is a rugby cultural icon who is revered in the Eastern and Western Cape, where he played his rugby during the segregated days. He’s black rugby royalty, up there with people such as Peter Mkata, Temba Ludwaba, Liston Ntshongwana, Eric Majola, Solomon Mhlaba.

‘We complement each other and over time the relationship grew to what it is now,’ says Ntunja. ‘Sir Jack is a very important person to have in broadcast because, of the 11 Xhosa commentators, he is the only one who was a prominent rugby player during the apartheid era.

‘He sometimes reminds us of some great players that played in that era and compares them to who’s playing now. We don’t always dwell on the past and we look to the future but I think it’s important to have someone from that era giving his views on the game.’

Xhosa commentary, to borrow from a famous wordsmith, knits the ravelled sleeve in rugby. It ties up the disconnection between people who truly love the game, who were born from it, with those in whose hands it is said to be held. It’s disarming, educational, entertaining and all-encompassing.

Even those not of Xhosa-speaking origin are moved to feel things whenever Zizi and Sir Jack spew yet another whimsical ‘Liqhashu! iBubbly! Shampopo! Shampizi!’.

It’s rugby but in a way you’ve never experienced it before.

*This feature appeared in the latest issue of SA Rugby magazine, now on sale.

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You would think SuperSport CEO Gideon Khobane doesn’t ‘get into his feelings’ watching sport on television. The man in charge of Africa’s biggest subscription sports channel has seen enough action to make anyone’s head spin. He was in Japan for the Rugby World Cup victory last year, inside Yokohama Stadium where Siya Kolisi and co made history by beating England in the final. But watching the game again, in Xhosa commentary, gives him a different feeling.

‘Whenever I’m feeling down or I’m sad, I watch last year’s Rugby World Cup Final with the Xhosa commentary,’ Khobane said. ‘Xhosa commentary has changed the enjoyment of rugby and taken it away from what’s happening on the field. The jokes, the insight and everything that goes with it, is a beautiful package.’

Khobane has noted the growth of the vernacular language offering and how it’s given people hope and inspiration. When the British & Irish Lions come back into the country next year, it’s incumbent on Kaunda Ntunja, Makhaya Jack and the rest of the team to give the world champions, the Springboks, a rousing reception.

‘In February I had a meeting with Kaunda Ntunja and I told him what a great year he had last year but I also wanted to motivate him to find another gear this year. You can tell from his commentary all the hard work, research and preparation that he’s put in.

Even when Makazole Mapimpi scored that try in the final, ‘iBubbly!’ It did amazing things for us.’