“I am fated to journey hand in hand with my strange heroes and to survey the surging immensity of life, to survey it through the laughter that all can see and through the sweat and tears unseen and unknown by anyone.” — Nikolai Gogol
The winters chill has not quiet set in and in our minds we are waiting for the real cold weather so that we can snuggle next to our fire places and let our spirits be rekindled by the flames. We were excited at the prospect of being granted an interview with Kaunda Ntunja someone we’ve looked up to and hailed from a very early age ourselves being alma maters of tradition rugby schools in the Eastern Cape. Kaunda is a visionary and a man of many talents and has succeeded in every aspect of life complimented by his desire to do more and to be more whilst staying humble and focussed. He was never given anything and has never been granted any favours by anyone in his professional capacity but through hard work and determination has made the most of whatever little opportunity has been presented to him and most importantly has gratitude for having been through an incredible journey in his life.
Kaunda was born in East London and raised in King Williams Town by parent who came from a life of poverty and hardship. They named him after the great Zambian president Kenneth Kaunda in the hope that he would embody the leadership traits shown by the man, and it has to be said that he has indeed lived up to the name. His parents worked very hard and sacrificed a lot for him and his two siblings, so that he and siblings could have a better life and not go through the same strife and struggles they had been through, teaching him always to be humble and to respect his elders, which are values he has lived by and that have taken him far in life.
Having been raised in the small town of King Williams Town we are asked him to tell us about the town;
King is a very small town but a friendly place. I went to a school there called Dale College from 1992 until 2000. The town itself embraces Dale as a core factor in its development and upliftment.
At present Kaunda is a husband, commentator, analyst, presenter, public speaker and a television show producer. We asked him how he manages all these roles;
In fact my production work takes up a lot of my time. It isn’t easy juggling a whole lot of things at once but I failed in my first career as a professional rugby player and I told myself that whatever I do next I will be successful at and will work harder than everyone else.
My wife, Aviwe, has been a huge blessing for me as she really supports all my ventures.
It is said that growing up he was a child prodigy in rugby and his achievements to date remain un matched or challenged? We asked him to tell us about his first years in rugby, playing bare feet in the King Williams Town grass in winter? Which school was the toughest school he played against?
The first time I played rugby was in 1992 as a plump 10 year old prop. Under 10s used to play very early games bare foot in the ice cold dew which wasn’t ideal but I loved every second of it. Throughout my school rugby career I got to make lifelong friendships and got to develop in the game. By the time I reached age 16 I felt very confident in my abilities as I had had the best coaches and mentors growing up. At that point I started reaping the rewards of hard work by getting selected in the various provincial age group structures.
Having been selected at various provincial structures it seemed he was ahead of his generation and we wondered as to when he realised he actually had the talent to actually go far in the sport;
I can’t really say I was ahead of my generation but my peers at school were very competitive and that helped me to push myself as well. This was also due to the competitive nature of a boys school you eventually push yourself to the limit and it just so happened that my body developed well enough for me to achieve maximum results on the field. I would say that in my Standard 9 year I felt that I was good enough to start thinking about playing professional rugby.
From thinking about playing professional rugby in standard 9 he then pressed on in his Matric year obtaining national colours in rugby. At this point he had captained most of SA junior teams and outshone his fellow school mates. He was idolised by the fellow pupils and students in rivalry schools that shared stories and myths about how good he was and how great he would be one day in rugby as a professional? We wondered whether he felt enough was done at high school level to acknowledge his contribution to the sport as a whole;
Yeah I felt that Dale supported me in my career throughout. To be honest I reached a point where I was so obsessed with achieving my sporting goals that being idolised in anyway wasn’t something that concerned me. Dale still prides itself on their alumni that has achieved a lot in their various fields and I feel that they have acknowledged me as well.
Kaunda had captained SA Junior springbok team, with players such as Jean De Villiers, Schalk Brits, Ricky Januarie, Fourie Du Preez, Jurie Muller, Gary Botha and Pedrie Wannenberg. We were interest in how felt watching the players that he once lead progress? Are players of colour given adequate opportunities to prove themselves?
I used to be bitter about the fact that I never achieved my goal of becoming a Springbok but I think that the Almighty guided me to where I am today. Today I am a lead commentator, analyst and presenter in some of the biggest rugby games on earth so I am actually happy with the final outcome. I believe that now the push to transform is being taken seriously by SA Rugby so we should see a lot of change going forward.
It is the aforementioned obsession to achieving his sporting goals that lead to him being recruited by the Natal Sharks at junior levels;
I was at the Sharks from 2001 until 2003. I played for their junior structures so that’s under 19, under 21 and the Vodacom Cup. Sadly I felt that at times when I strayed and lost focus on my rugby I didn’t always get the necessary support to put me back on track as it sometimes felt that the union was hoping I would fail. That blame though should lie on me because rugby was what I went there for and in hindsight I should’ve worked harder to make it. Eventually I didn’t make the Sharks and I was released from my contract at the age of 21.
Having been released from the Natal Sharks contract at the age of 21 he was brought in at the Cheetahs and his fight to make it as a mainstay in professional rugby continued;
From the Sharks I then went to the Cheetahs and the first thing I was told to work on there was my conditioning. It took me about 3 or 4 months to eventually get to where I was supposed to be. The Cheetahs then decided to give me a chance at Currie Cup level and they contracted me as well. It also just so happened that out of every position, loose forward is where they were stacked and it became difficult to play in the main side regularly. At the time we had Rassie Erasmus, Juan Smith, Hendro Scholtz, Gerrie Britz, Kabamba Floors to name a few that were there. So jostling for a spot wasn’t easy.
At 23 whilst at the Cheetahs he was asked to go into coaching? How did you feel about this?
At the end of 2005 when my contract had come to an end at the Cheetahs the union felt that they still wanted me to get involved and asked if I could play in the Vodacom Cup and coach their under 21s during the Currie Cup. I declined that offer because I felt that I still had something to offer as a player. I must admit that I was disappointed but the writing was on the wall that the end of my career was near.
Struggling for opportunities amongst a very talented line up at the Cheetahs Kaunda decided to go back to his roots in the Eastern Cape hoping he would get more playing time in professional rugby under his belt rejuvenating his ailing rugby career;
I then went back to the Eastern Cape to play for what was then called the Spears which eventually became the Southern Kings. After the decimation of the Spears I played a few seasons for the Border Bulldogs and Loffie Eloff from the Lions called me up and offered me a contract. When I got there I was told that I was going to play Super Rugby but unfortunately that never materialized. I was bitter at the time but that door that closed opened up many others.
It would seem at this point luck was not on his side with the dissolution or the spears and the promise to be played in super rugby not materialising. Kaunda now has to sit and reflect, learn and proceed with life. We of course wanted to know more about more about his state of mind and emotions and his views on rugby in general.
Often black players are shifted around and put in different positions than what they were groomed and developed for example Bobo, what are his views on this?
It actually isn’t always black players that get shifted around but for those that do get shifted around it can be disheartening. An example is a young talented flyhalf called Andisa Gqobo that people don’t know of, was a SA schools flyhalf who got signed at the Bulls and was then told to play wing. His career went downhill from there and he is a player I honestly believed would make it.
On whether he thinks South Africa had enough to exploit the raw black talent in high schools around the country?
No I don’t think so. Youngsters get opportunities to play at the Craven Week which is great. What happens thereafter is what leaves me bitter. A lot of the young black players wither away when they are meant to be playing professionally. The unions need to employ more mentors that come from similar backgrounds to these youngsters to advise them and guide them throughout
At Springbok and Franchise level does he think the players ever chosen on merit?
Some players do get chosen on merit and some clearly don’t. It is important though to get all your development systems in place so that you don’t feel pressure to select a certain amount of black players but the black players come through your systems seamlessly. Look at what is happening at Western Province for example.
Being someone who was primed to captain the springboks, he will perhaps go down in history as one of the greatest victim of systematic or institutionalised oppression and a leading example of why rugby needs to be transformed. We asked on his views on transformation?
I prefer blaming myself more for not making it. I honestly believe that if I had worked hard on my rugby and risen above all adversity I would’ve made it. So maybe we could say that at the time I was lacking mental strength. It is important though for our top tier teams to transform so that other youngsters from similar backgrounds to the likes of Siya Kolisi can also be inspired to take up rugby. Once the entire South African population embraces the game, we will be a mighty force to be reckoned with.
Now that is a page we all need to take out of Kaunda Book, the ability to concede and learn from your mistakes in order to move on. At this stage Kaunda has to move to greener pastures and he reappears as a rugby commentator on Supersport;
In 2009 SuperSport decided that they wanted vernacular commentary during the British Lions Series. Luckily for me, I had auditioned to be an English commentator for SuperSport the year before and they were impressed with me at the time. They asked if I was keen to commentate in Xhosa and I agreed so that I could at least get a foot in the door.
We wonder how they convincing Supersport to keep them on after the Series and to send our greetings to Dabane;
I didn’t really need to convince SuperSport to go ahead with it after the British Lions tour because they could see that the public’s response was overwhelming. Myself and Makhaya Jack (Former SARU loose forward) have been involved ever since.
Kaunda and his partner Dabane were pulling the listenership on Supersport and at this stage his career was on an upward trajectory and it is at this point when he appeared on the most popular sports show in South Africa on Metro with Rob Marawa;
Following my success with SuperSport, a man I really look up to, Robert Marawa, asked me to come through to his studios to speak about the Rugby World Cup last year in 2015. The listeners really enjoyed the analysis and engagement and from there it grew into a full scale show called The Room Dividers. Lawrence Sephaka and Thando Manana also got roped in and the show basically took over the airwaves. LOL!
Kaundas relationship with Supersport has also grown beyond just commentary;
I have been involved in a few shows on SuperSport. Firstly, I have been called up as guest on a number of occasions on Boots & All and now TMO. I also produced and anchored SuperSport’s Rugby World Cup build up show called THE SELECTORS. I have also produced and anchored a show in 2013 called Vula which was SuperSport’s first ever vernacular magazine show. I am currently the content producer and anchor of a show called Phaka on SuperSport.
He is now squarely in the lime light but he once again feels he needs to do more and give back to the community;
Marcel Malherbe and Nick Eyre called me a while ago to be a guest speaker at their Old Boys 10s function. This is an initiative that is used to raise funds to assist those less fortunate. It is wonderful to see rugby projects assist in eradicating poverty.
Kaundas story is one of humble beginnings and endless possibilities and is testament to the adage which says where one door closes a lot more open. He had this message for the current and future generation of black rugby players;
They need to keep their heads down and focus on playing the game and not involve themselves in the politics of the game. There are people that are positioned to fight those battles. Their jobs are simple, train hard and play. I would also like to warn them against not using their rugby talents to further their education. Education is key and if they don’t make it in rugby then at least they must have something to fall back on.
We asked him on a lighter note that considering that he is a natural born leader, a role model, a ground breaker and being someone whom when he talk people listen whether he would ever run for the presidency one day?
Hahaha! Definitely not president of the country but it would be nice to be the president of SA Rugby one day.
You can catch Kaunda Ntunja on Supersport 1 every Tuesday at 18:00 and on Metro FM with Robert Marawa on Room Dviders at 18:30.
We once again would like to take this opportunity to thank Kaunda for taking the time out to speak to us.
By: Phila Bitterhout