Lala kahle, Zizi

South African rugby has lost a gentle giant in Kaunda Ntunja. His commentary in isiXhosa poetically ushered in the Springboks’ first black captain and ‘popped champagne’ after Mapimpi’s magic.

To the overwhelming majority of rugby followers in this country, he was the voice of the modern South African game, waxing lyrical in vivacious vernacular. He was a gentle giant of a man, orating some of the most significant moments of the past decade with a reverence and sense of pride in what he was describing. 

He immortalised Siya Kolisi’s coronation before the anthems and Makazole Mapimpi’s champagne moments wouldn’t taste quite the same without Kaunda Ntunja bubbling at the brilliance. The South African broadcasting landscape has lost a skyscraper and is infinitely poorer for the loss of his incomparable poetry. He was a glowing example that excellence can sparkle in whatever language it pleases.

Ntunja’s passion for the game of rugby was matched by his ability. He was a South African Schools captain at the turn of the century and a Currie Cup winner five years later with the Free State Cheetahs. He threw his considerable frame into tackles and rucks with the same burst of energy with which he launched his highly anticipated pre-match sermons.

The game of rugby has lost a vivid mind, a bottomless well of nous and niche and nurture, a relentless source of cheeky nicknames and release of tension. Umbhoxo, in all its colourful shades of the rainbow nation, is left much the poorer without his mentorship of those starting out in his footsteps.

His sporting knowledge and nudging wasn’t confined to scrums and lineouts, because he was also an unapologetic Manchester United supporter, happy to engage in banter on social media every Friday afternoon – and primed to gloat or bemoan the results on Monday mornings. He was increasingly excited about the current United midfield, already painting a picture of what fun the future promised with Ole Gunnar Solskjaer at the wheel and Bruno Fernandes, Paul Pogba and the rest of the Red Devils on the riot.

An all-round sportsperson 

The legions of United fans are a little quieter without Ntunja’s mischief-making. United till I die was his mantra. He dabbled in the sweet science, too, ready to rumble on the pugilistic styles of Manny Pacquiao over Floyd Mayweather, the glorious uncertainty of the heavyweight division and much more besides. 

Ntunja gorged himself on the preamble before huge fights, generously sharing his predictions and reservations on style and substance. The timeless debates around fight nights will not be nearly as combative or considered, and the early risers on superfight Sundays will miss his mid-morning musings on what had been seen.

In the media space, particularly the rugby press box, he was a voice of reason; a man respected and recognised for his achievements and his humility. Ntunja was always happy to engage on the game, not dismissing stray opinion by virtue of inexperience or unfamiliarity. He was a source of wit and wonder, and the post-match drink will be bittersweet without his unique dose of tonic.

Anyone who ever met him will concur that Ntunja was an absolute gentle giant of a man. More than all of that, however, he was a father, a husband, a son and a brother. If we, the masses, feel a great sense of loss, consider those left to pick up the pieces without him.

For a man who used to summon words and drum up emotions so routinely, there are simply none to do him justice. At just 38 years old, he was in his absolute prime. The final whistle has been cruelly blown well ahead of time.

Lala kahle, Zizi. Liyalila izwe.

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