Sports commentators who are women are still few and far between, but there are some who have made this field their own and continue to post high figures on the scoreboard, bringing us the best in sporting narration and analysis. Phumlani S Langa speaks to Kass Naido, Mpho Letsholonyane and Julia Stuart.
Kass Naidoo is currently anchoring the ongoing South Africa versus Sri Lanka cricket test on SABC3 (DStv channel 193) and Radio 2000 today and again from Wednesday for the second test.Kass has been a part of South African cricket broadcasting since 2003 and fans of the sport can’t get enough of her. She’s regarded as an expert when it comes to this sport that has, as in so many other sporting codes, been dominated by men.
Kass paid her own way through journalism school and even tried her hand at print media before producing sport on an afternoon drive radio show. But she was unable to delve into commentating cricket, so she left and headed for the SABC.
Kass says: “I initially worked as a writer on the 7pm news desk and edited sports stories. The magic moment happened when South African sports broadcasting legend Robert Marawa – who read the sports news on our broadcast – heard me relate my dream and introduced me to SABC Sport, where I landed my first real big break.”
Since then, Kass has been unstoppable.
“I’ve done four Cricket World Cups for SABC Sport since then, and I’ve hosted and commentated on numerous bilateral home series across test, one-day and T20 formats, in addition to speciality broadcast events like the Olympics, Paralympics and Commonwealth Games.”
Her passion for cricket broadcasting was born when she was just 14 years old.
“I heard a woman commentate on international men’s cricket for the first time. I fell in love with how the West Indian Donna Symmonds called the game, and I decided to become South Africa’s first woman cricket commentator.”
Kass played netball, and says she was quite a formidable sprinter.
“Once I fell in love with cricket, all I did was immerse myself in the game, attend matches and soak up as much knowledge as possible.”
A day on shoot usually starts at 4.30am. Kass does yoga, finalises her research, grabs a bite to eat, does hair and make-up, and then heads to either the SABC or a stadium to begin a 10-hour day.
The early years in her career were tough as she admits to dealing with low self-confidence and being plagued by the feeling like she didn’t belong.
“Over the years, I realised that the best way to shed that is experience. I’m glad I’ve put in my 10 000 hours. More than 15 years later, I love cricket broadcasting more than ever.
Her most memorable sporting moment is one cricket fans could guess fairly easily.
“Anchoring and commentating on the 438-run game at Wanderers in 2006. It was an unreal game where South Africa were dead and buried at half time and then chased the total of 434 for four down to stun Australia. The game got worldwide attention and I received correspondence from all over the world from fans who could not get over South Africa’s win!”
Kass has used any challenges she has faced in this field as an opportunity to learn.
“This industry was not made for women. The rules were skewed in favour of men. Rather than moan about it, I learnt the rules of the industry and then rewrote them to make it work for me. The golden rule is to never hurt the game.”
Mpho Letsholonyane is on the Metro FM Fresh Breakfast Drive every morning from 5am to 9am and on Soccer Zone on weekends on SABC1 (DStv channel 191).
I meet with Mpho at Radio Park at the SABC. She is wrapping up her show on Metro FM, where she provides the news and sports coverage alongside DJ Fresh and Somizi. We steal a moment just before her last bulletin and chat a bit about her career in sports broadcasting.
Our conversation anchors itself on the issues around women and sports, and how we should go about evening the keel on this matter.
So, when did she first realise this field could be a viable option for her?
“I’m not sure if I ever realised it was something I wanted; it just happened. I used to love talking about football, especially after a derby, and then Bridget Masinga said SuperSport was looking for a woman broadcaster and suggested I try it out.”
Mpho gave it a shot and, after one screen test, she was taken.
“I guess I just fell into sports broadcasting and fell head over heels in love with it. Especially the live element of it.”
She enjoys this particularly as live TV forces you to stay on your toes and it can be quite a harrowing work environment when things go wrong.
“The moment you know something is pre-recorded, you have a thing in the back of your mind – it’s like a safety net of sorts – but if you’re live, there are no second takes,” she says.
For the husky-voiced broadcaster, the plight of woman athletes in South Africa is something that needs to be addressed urgently.
“The mere fact that, across the board, women are still sidelined bothers my soul. We have big businesses clambering and fighting one another for the chance to support men, and they completely forget about the women. It’s like they’re not there.”
She gives the example of insurance company Momentum recently pulling its backing from women’s cricket.
“Quite recently, SA Breweries pulled out of netball. It just makes me wonder what we need for corporate South Africa to take us seriously. Development needs money. We need facilities and equipment – those things come with money.
“Even as a broadcaster, I feel we don’t give women enough of a platform. The stories are so different and difficult to get that it’s almost a full-time job to unearth the stories of women in different sporting codes.”
She follows people who are solely involved in women’s sport so she can include that content in her bulletins.
So, what’s it like being a woman in a male-dominated field?
“I still face some of these challenges today. For starters, some people only woke up to my existence because my husband happens to be well known. People asked if I was only just now getting into sports because of him.”
The truth is that Mpho had been at it for quite a while before meeting acclaimed Bafana veteran midfielder Reneilwe “Yeye” Letsholonyane.
“Then there are still those people who feel women have no place in sport. Like, what are we doing here; how can a woman tell me about Pirates and Chiefs; shouldn’t she be at home cooking?
“I’ve even been in situations where women in positions of power would rather pick a man for a job than elevate women below them.”
She has kept the challenges at bay by surrounding herself with like-minded women who offer each other support and council.
“Someone like Motshidisi Mohono is a person who I’d speed-dial in a second. As much as she is younger than me, she’s dealing with a whole different kettle of fish by being in the rugby space as a black girl. Beverly Mapanga, who is Robert Marawa’s producer, is also someone I consider to be an ally.”
As her reputation in this field has grown, one would assume that some of these challenges would subside.
“The problems simply become different problems – they don’t get easier to manage. The one thing I’ve realised is that, the higher you get, the more people want to pit you against other women in the field. You hardly see people comparing Thomas [Mlambo] with Marawa. Why do women have to be compared and not just celebrated?”
Julia Stuart commentates most of the Absa Premiership games on SuperSport (DStv channel 204).
Julia has been in sports broadcasting for seven years, having started as a print journalist at the University of Cape Town, where she studied film and media production. Julia played football and says she wasn’t very good. However, she was interested in the sport and even began covering it during her work as a reporter and eventually as the sports editor at the Daily Voice Newspaper.
“I think that’s what gives me such a great appreciation for footballers now. I was also a dancer for most of my life; in fact, I always thought I would eventually have a career in performing arts.”
Her first sports broadcasting job was as a junior sports reporter at e.tv and eNCA.
As a youngster in Hanover Park in Cape Town, Julia would pretend to be tennis legend Steffi Graf. She also recalls her intense adoration for local sporting icons.
“There’s something to be said for the way that South Africans who’ve represented us so well on the international stage validate your dreams as a kid watching back home. Guys like Lucas Radebe, Benni McCarthy, Quinton Fortune and Shaun Bartlett, who are legends here and globally. Then there are Bryan Habana, Penny Heyns and the latest crop, including Caster Semenya, who continues to strive for excellence in the face of so much adversity.”
We had to find out what the toughest day on the job for Julia has been so far. She remembers the now infamous 6-0 win for Sundowns over Pirates in 2017.
“The crowd trouble that day and the anger on those fans’ faces when they invaded the pitch to cause destruction – that’s not something I will ever forget. What made it difficult was the fact that I had to run for cover along with some of the other crew down the tunnel at Loftus Versfeld Stadium. It wasn’t safe for us to go back out on the pitch for some time, so we struggled to provide updates.”
Given the partnership between the Premier Soccer League and SuperSport, she concedes that the story was tricky from an editorial standpoint and she had to find the right balance to report on the incident without glorifying the hooliganism.
Being on camera and doing live TV is stressful. Has anything ever gone particularly wrong on camera and how did she manage to avert embarrassment?
“I think most people saw the interview I did with Mamelodi Sundowns coach Pitso Mosimane after a CAF Champions League game last month. A coach screaming and fighting with someone off camera while you’re live on air and caught in the middle is about as stressful as it gets! In that moment, and many other moments when things are not going according to plan, it is important to remember that your responsibility is to the viewer at home. They don’t care that your earpiece isn’t working – they have paid their subscription and they want to hear from their coach why their team won or lost or drew. It’s never about you; you’re just the facilitator. You just have to keep it moving. Just keep calm and keep talking.”
Sports have always held a special place in the hearts of South Africans. My first recollection of our shared adoration for the sporting arena was when the Springboks won the 1995 rugby World Cup. People across the country pressed their hooters in their cars in delight and Boeing jets soared overhead, as a sublime drop kick to victory gave us what some might say was the nation’s first taste of unity.
We felt a similar wave of emotion during the 2010 World Cup as Siphiwe Tshabalala scored the opening goal of the tournament with a thunderous strike from outside the area. I also remember Ghana being the last African team left in this tournament and how I watched their talismanic striker Asamoah Gyan’s penalty shot sail over the crossbar while I stood arm in arm with people I’d never met before. It didn’t matter that so few of us were Ghanaian or black, what mattered was watching the Black Stars progress to the next round. When they didn’t, no matter what your background was, if you were African, you mourned that miss with the masses.
Who could forget watching swimmer Roland Schoeman and the boys as they gave the world a clinical performance in the 4x100 relay in 2004, or the Proteas’ 438-run one-day international win against Australia in 2006?
All through these amazing moments, our experience as the viewer is guided by astute sporting analysts who provide insights on player selection, playing conditions and any other factors that might affect a game, not to mention a seemingly boundless stream of stats.