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The Art of Suspense

Lidudumalingani Mqombothi revisits the football matches of his childhood, when radio, not television, was most people’s ticket to the beautiful game. But a radio was not the only requirement for a full experience – an active imagination and an attentive ear were integral to engaging in the virtuosity of the audio commentary.



Only a handful of things in life are an exact science, memory is not one of them, so let us assume the day to have been a Saturday or Sunday, the two days that football is usually played. We stood across the road to watch the match at a house whose front door was left ajar to let the afternoon sun in. We squinted so that the sun’s rays would not blind us. Light had gathered on the edges of the mountain, forest, houses and riverbanks, colouring everything in hues of orange.

The experience, though only limited to a few minutes, was conclusive. In that limited time, one thing came into focus: television was no place for football. The players, in the few minutes we watched before the door was closed in our faces, appeared to run in the same place, like one does in a dream, almost backwards even. The commentators had languid voices; nothing excited or disappointed them – not a bone-crunching tackle, not even the near-miss of a goal. We were made to watch replays of the same action over and over again until it dried of excitement. Because of this we never really saw much at all.

On radio, football adopts a different principle. When the commentators are talking about something unrelated to the match, or when they go quiet, one is left with two things, the sound of the crowd roaring at the stadium and the other, far greater than seeing, the absence of sight, the ability to re-imagine where the ball is on the field without the commentators calling it.

Later in my teen years, my experience of football on television became frequent and lasted for longer periods. Even then watching the game on television always felt like a scam, like one was being manipulated, only shown the match in fragments, to watch one play over and over again, whilst the game carried on.

In contrast, radio demands collaboration from the listener, an active imagination, an attentive ear, a wandering spirit. It is not for spectators but dreamers, dreamers of goals, tackles, passes, skills, saves, and the impossible.

Radio took me and every other young boy with dreams to dance on soccer balls like Doctor Khumalo, Jay Jay Okocha, Patrick Pule “Ace” Ntsoelengoe, to the biggest stages. One felt part of it, the anecdotes from the commentators, the way they painted the pictures in our minds, one was there, listening so much that one began not only to hear the game but to see it, to mould the players and stadiums from the commentators’ descriptions.

The houses of the Zikhovane village, a village that stands on a mound between two valleys, are an uneven combination of thatched rondavels and six corner houses, built in a single line, all facing the sunrise. The residents wake up to catch the sun’s rays sneaking in through their front doors, whilst the valley hums its morning melody of flowing water. As a child, during weekend afternoons, behind kraals and houses, we would wave the sun away while listening to football on the radio.

The late Zingisile Johnson Mathiso, also widely known as “Ngxilimbela” (Big Boss), and Mthuthuzeli Scott, the two Xhosa speaking commentators from Umhlobo Wenene FM, brought Abedi Pele, Sunday Oliseh and Nelson “Teenage” Dladla right into the village. The field beneath my home turned into exotic stadiums with green pitches, straight lines and stands reaching up to the sky. The fans, always cheering, always in awe, were re-imagined from the sound of fans that would pierce the commentary on the radio.

Even when television arrived in the villages, first as tiny black-and-white sets, then as big colour screens with remotes, radio commentary remained in the hearts of many. During matches, TVs in most homes were mute. They played in silence as the radio commentary was on. There was no perfect synergy between the two, however. The goals were scored on radio before they were on television and the seconds apart would feel like a lifetime. To the absent-minded, it would appear as if there had been, within a space of seconds, an identical goal that had just been scored. Though it gave one the feeling of seeing the future, seeing the goal before it was scored on television, the experience was not pleasant. Over time, when it had sunk in to people’s minds that a mute television and radio commentary do not go together, they retreated to their radios.

The other element that football radio commentary has perfected is the art of suspense. Mathiso and Scott invented suspense. There are moments they arrive at after building up the play, moments in which they do not care about the words they choose – words are half-begun and abandoned before they end. They are simply too long to be finished and still keep up with the game. The moments of suspense come after these build-ups, the two could have easily told the listener that the player is in an offside position, or that they have either scored or missed the goal, but they do not, instead they let the soccer fans in the stadium erupt into euphoria for a second or so before revealing what has just happened. Choosing silence, in such a crucial moment, to hold almost an entire country in a state where they do not breathe, is to choose art.

While commentating Mathiso and Scott performed a theatre that was as important as the game. They would go on for minutes speaking about something irrelevant, about people the listeners did not know. They did not even have to commentate the same game to be in conversation, they could be miles apart, yet the synergy between them and the fans always remained strong. They had worked together for 23 years when Mathiso passed away in 2013. Scott now commentates alone, but continues with the tradition, performing soliloquies to entertain and amuse.

After a weekend of soccer, school halls on Monday, and later first practice of the week at the soccer pitch, were not only dominated by talk of the games but of what Mathiso or Scott had said. It was their commentary that held the memory of the games together. Through them we could remember the games. In our own matches in the villages, there was always someone willing to imitate radio commentary. Even then, with the soccer match happening right in front of everyone’s eyes, the fans would gather around the commentator, choosing to listen rather than to watch the match that was happening in front of them. As a player on the field, hearing a commentator with the radio style, barefoot players re-imagined themselves as superstars, playing in a crowded stadium.

There have been radio commentators that have moved to television, bringing with them the energy of radio. Still, something is always left behind in that tiny radio box.

Ubuntu be Afrika, my son, is now three years old, and he loves football and watches it on television. On the few occasions that I still follow matches on the radio, I wish he would sit and re-imagine the game with me.


chronic 7 books resizedThis story features in the Chronic Books (April 2016), an edition in which we explore the tensions between reform and revolution, and decolonisation and the neoliberal order in the academy, through the lens of history and via the alternate education paradigms based in indigenous knowledge systems, and also arising from South Africa’s radical anti-apartheid struggle.

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