“Lisenethini” he used to say when a goal was scored. But it was what came before that made Phillip Babayi Zwane one of a kind in football. His commentary was a feast of story-telling. As the attacking team surged towards the goal line, Mangethe would retain his full arsenal of technical descriptions. Still he made words like ‘in-swinger’ sound like a mysterious ritual, known only to the most gifted footballers. Listening to Mangethe week after week, month after month, year after year, you felt privileged, lucky to hear him describe the magic on the football field with such deep knowledge. This week South Africa lost this golden voice of sports commentary on Radio.
It was not for Mangethe to hold back and describe the taking of a corner kick as simply a ‘corner kick’. He would give you more. You could tell from his voice just how much pleasure it gave him to convey the tiniest detail. This was the golden age of radio, before TV arrived in SA and most of us that loved football relied on the radio to discover our football heroes. Mangethe was deeply gifted.
He would start with the atmosphere at the stadium, he knew that sitting at home or under the tree, the radio your only connection with the action, it was his role to take you there. And so he would dutifully describe even the grass on the field, its color and the state of the goalposts. He would let you know towards which end each team was playing. So that when he said ‘Amazulu are playing towards the railway line’. Even if you’d never been anywhere near Orlando Stadium, or Glebe Stadium in Umlazi, Mangethe made it seem familiar, even intimate.
Mangethe, as Phillip Babayi Zwane was affectionately known reminded you why radio is known as the theatre of the imagination. Armed with his deep wit, incredible knowledge and sharp observations, what he brought those glued to the wireless were not drab, lifeless reports, but exciting enactments of valor, of creativity, of magic. Listening to him, it was one did not need a branding expert to grasp why football is known as The Beautiful Game.
Like all the great voices on Radio, Mangethe invented his own vocabularly. Even when he used common words, once uttered by him, he invested them with a new meaning that vanished when he wasn’t the one saying them. One such word was his cry when a striker had scored. ‘lisenethini’ he would say, not overwhelmed by the emotion as other announcers were wont to do. Still it was in the way that he said it that you knew that this was not simply a description or statement of the obvious. Yes. The ball was in the net. But it was a climax of a number of moves, of the intelligence that the best footballers bring to the pitch. And Mangethe knew how to convey this. To turn the radio into a hallowed theatre.
Mangethe knew instinctively that the devil was in the detail. So his commentary was a master class in describing in wonderful detail, the smallest things. He would let you know how the footballer had placed his foot. How he was swinging his body, how he was staring at the goalkeeper if it was a penalty kick. He had this uncanny ability to make you feel as if you were at the stadium. That you could hear, see, and touch the very ball that the striker was about to slam into the net. As Robert Marawa says, when Mangethe used the word ‘grasscutter’ to describe a shot, you knew exactly how the striker had hit the ball.
Such was Mangethe’s power that when football was finally put on television, I was disappointed to see the scrawny figures darting across the field. Yes, I could finally see the games myself, and players like Ephraim Jomo Sono went from mythical figures to palpable reality. But somehow the magic was gone. And it was thanks to the likes of Philip Babayi Zwane, u Mangethe that TV lacked the intimate mystery of radio commentary. Mangethe brought you close to the coaches and their eccentricity on the touchlines. So you felt as if you knew how Joe Frickleton would be pacing up and down, and what he would be shouting to the players.
Mangethe was part of a golden generation of football announcers that included the great Elijah Thetha Masombuka and Koos Radebe. These great men of radio used to take you from your distant village & put you at the heart of the action. They had a way of conveying their own excitement, their love for the greatest game of them all. In their hands, the great players like Patson Kamuzu Banda, Patrick Ace Ntsolengoe, Oscar Jazzman Dlamini, MacDonald Rhee Skhosana, Abednigo ‘Shaka’ Ngcobo, Gerald ‘Mgababa’ Dlamini, Frederick ‘The Cat’ Mfeka, Petros ‘Ten Ten’ Nzimande and Nelson Teenage Dladla loomed large in the collective imagination. Many of us had not seen these great stars of the beautiful game, but we felt as if we could walk right up to them and pat them on the shoulder and sit down for an intimate chat.
S’Bu Mseleku, one of the great journalists in football, called me early Tuesday morning to let me know of the passing of this giant. I could tell from the quiver in his voice that this was no mere story for Mseleku, but a moment of loss that he felt personally.
The great Mangethe may have joined his ancestors this week, but he leaves behind a wonderful legacy as one of those with a gift for making radio that most magical of inventions. Those that know him know that he was equally adept at rugby, horse racing, cycling, road running and boxing. The word legend is often thrown around these days, but Phillip Babayi Zwane fully deserves it. Siyabonga Mangethe.