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Xhosa commentary gave black rugby back its voice and musical sound

The use of isiXhosa in rugby (beyond technical knowledge) gave the game a gravitas which has inspired the theatre of the mind, a new lexicon, and has centred song and dance which is central to African expression, writes Simnikiwe Xabanisa
Thu, Oct 22, 2020

Kaunda Ntunja assembled a commentary team – which had grown to 11 at the time of his death. PHOTO: Nick Lourens

To gain a sense of why rugby’s isiXhosa commentary is largely defined by being over-the-top, we probably should go back 20 years ago, when the man widely recognised as having been instrumental in helping it gatecrash our living rooms – the late Kaunda Ntunja – was still at school.

As good as he was a rugby player – he played over 50 games for Dale College and left as the first black SA Schools captain – Ntunja was said to have been even better at drama, writing and directing his hostel’s plays and starring in them, and picking up awards for it.

Said flair for the dramatic inevitably crept into the field of play, where it wasn’t uncommon for the flamboyant flanker to bestride the middle of the field during a game bellowing: “Give Ntunja the ball!”

The irony of Ntunja emerging as something akin the godfather of isiXhosa commentary on television is how accidental it all was. As his unfulfilled playing career was meeting an untimely end at the hands of injury, he was offered an opportunity to commentate in English.

But someone at SuperSport did away with the box altogether in thinking maybe the channel could use the diversity of commentating in isiXhosa, and Ntunja suddenly found himself calling the British and Irish Lions’ tour match against the Southern Spears (now the Kings) with the Kwaru rugby legend Makhaya Jack in 2009.

As easy as Ntunja’s lyrical commentary style was to the ear (he will forever be remembered for the monologue which bordered on praise-singing when Siya Kolisi took over his first game as Springbok captain and the World Cup final last year), it was the result of countless hours behind the scenes, honing his craft.

While born and bred in Butterworth, in the Eastern Cape, Ntunja didn’t study isiXhosa at Dale, which almost meant having to study the language afresh so he could be fit for purpose as a commentator.

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So he bought himself an English-isiXhosa dictionary and took to practising by commentating on televised games with the volume down and having the radio dial in his car stuck on isiXhosa station Umhlobo Wenene.

Getting his foot in the door may have been serendipitous, but the way Ntunja went about assembling his commentary team – which had grown to 11 at the time of his death – was deliberate.

The prerequisites were simple enough: you had to be knowledgeable and passionate about your rugby, talk a good game and be in possession of a larger than life personality. A few people epitomise this better than the self-styled “ityala lamawele” (loose translation terrible twins) duo of Kaya Malotana and Lonwabo ‘Black’ Mtimka.

The first black African Springbok to play test rugby, the riotous Malotana has the rare ability to infuse rural isiXhosa vocabulary and the latest colloquialisms in his commentary.

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Mtimka, a former Dale and SA Schools teammate of Ntunja’s, has the uncanny ability to nickname just about everyone he meets. For example, former Golden Lions player Franco Mostert labours under the misapprehension that his nickname is ‘Sous’ (Sauce).

But his more viral pet name in the black rugby community is ‘440’ (as in millimetres), a nod to his utility value for the Springboks as a lock or a blindside flank, meaning if he were a beer he would be a 440ml one – neither a dumpy nor a quart.

Between them, the isiXhosa rugby commentators have introduced a whole new lexicon to rugby.

Ukuvala ibhayibhile (closing the bible), is calling which way the game will go, even if there’s still 30 minutes left; ismash and grab is snatching victory from the jaws of defeat; and iqhashu, ibubbly, izinto ezihlwahlwazelayo is champagne rugby, as Ntunja told us when Lukhanyo Am and Makazole Mapimpi combined to score in the World Cup final.

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It’s no wonder, then, that isiXhosa commentary doesn’t have an even-toned bone in its delivery. As with most Xhosa people one meets, the uninhibited nature of isiXhosa commentary is such that it doesn’t do being background noise, rather it is front and centre.

It was that in your face quality that Ntunja harnessed by supplementing the commentary with the weekly magazine show Phaka, which has become the platform to give black rugby back the voice taken from it in the typical erasure of hundreds of years of black history brought by apartheid.

Jack says there was a deliberate attempt on their part to ensure that black rugby elbowed for room with its white counterparts, and with that it became permissible for amagwijo – the isiXhosa songs which have always been part of black rugby – to make their recent entry in the broader firmament of the game.

Ntunja not becoming a Springbok is often lamented, but his ending up an isiXhosa commentator instead was arguably more influential because it was critical to giving black rugby back its voice.

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