13 December 2020
There’s something special about this place, says Vincent Ntunja as he reminisces about growing up in Gugulethu, a vibrant community in the heart of Cape Town.
The former South African national basketball player, model and radio presenter is the founder of Run/Walk Gugs and director of African Grassroot Hoops, an initiative that uses basketball to connect with underprivileged children.
Ntunja was born and bred (and still lives) in Gugulethu or ‘Gugs’, where a basketball court is named after him. He wouldn’t exchange his hometown for any other city in the world.
“I grew up in the dusty streets of Gugs and like any other child around here, I had to endure hardship and challenges,” says Ntunja, who at the age of 12 tragically lost his father. “Today I’m an ambassador for international sports clothing manufacturer Under Armour, but I’ll never shy away from my roots, who I am or what I’m about. I’m proudly Gugs, proudly Cape Town and proudly South African.”
Cape Town is a beautiful city. It has soul… a rich history. It offers opportunity and has so much potential. I’ve turned down opportunities to live and work elsewhere. For me, I don’t have to go to Johannesburg or Durban to feel that I’ve made it. I belong here and want to contribute to building the Cape Town I envision.
Ntunja envisions a city where people “truly embrace the spirit of Ubuntu”, the belief in a universal bond of sharing that connects all humanity.
“That’s my vision for Cape Town,” he says. “I love Cape Town and want to contribute to building the city I want our children to inherit. Where they can live, work and raise their families. I envision a non-racial Cape Town, where everyone feels welcome. All of us need to contribute to that vision. It’s not going to happen by us just thinking it will happen – we have to take action and work towards making it a reality for future generations.”
Ntunja is leading the charge in his local community, positively impacting the lives of young people with business partner Giovanni Freeman through the African Grassroots Hoops (AGH) initiative. On Youth Day (June 16), AGH hosted a basketball tournament at the Cape Town International Convention Centre, attracting over 800 youngsters.
“I do this because I love it. It’s my passion… part of my responsibility to give back. I see myself as a vehicle to signal positive change in my community,” says Ntunja, who rates being handpicked by basketball legend Michael Jordan as the Most Valuable Player (MVP) during a development camp in Los Angeles in 1998 as one of his greatest achievements.
“That MVP Award is my inspiration. The trophy is next to my bed. I look at it every morning before starting my day.”
Ntunja was one of four players from Africa chosen to represent the continent at the Michael Jordan training camp in the United States. “I received the news four days after returning from the World Youth Games in Russia,” says Ntunja. “I was still on a high from playing against the world’s top teams, and now I was off to the US to meet Michael Jordan. I was chosen as the MVP out of 500 players from across the world and afforded the opportunity to study in the US on a full scholarship.”
Unfortunately, Ntunja had to turn down the offer.
“I had just lost my father, and while at camp I got a call that my mom was suffering from terrible migraines. I told Michael Jordan and the team that while this was a huge opportunity, a dream come true, I unfortunately could not take up the scholarship due to my mom’s illness. She needed me,” says Ntunja. “I told them that I would make something of myself in South Africa with the opportunity they had given me. I don’t know where that path would’ve taken me, but I don’t regret making that decision.”
Upon his return to Cape Town, Ntunja finished school and went on to study. He completed his Honours in Tourism Management and has a Masters degree in Sports Tourism.
In 2013, as part of the City of Cape Town’s street renaming process in Gugulethu, Ntunja met Philippa Jephson, founder of Run Cape Town, who invited him on a sightseeing run through Cape Town’s CBD.
“We took runs around Cape Town and the inner city, passing several historical sites and I thought, ‘Wow! I could do this in Gugs’. That’s where the Run/Walk Gugs idea was born. It linked back to my tourism studies and was a good way of showcasing Gugs and promoting healthy lifestyles.”
With Run/Walk Gugs, Ntunja narrates the story of Gugulethu with stops at important historical landmarks in the area, including the Gugulethu Seven Memorial, the Amy Biehl Memorial, the Gugulethu Sports complex – where the Vincent Ntunja basketball court is located, and Mzoli’s, one of Gugs’ most visited braai (barbecue) spots.
“Run/Walk Gugs is extremely popular with international visitors,” says Ntunja. “We’ve had groups from China, the US and across the world. I would encourage anyone interested in learning more about our people and the history of the area to consider doing the run.”
Visit the Run Gugulethu webpage