06 August 2012 by Chris Marais

Stick-fighting man

Stick fighting in the South African rural areas is a rite of passage for young boys, who become as adept at this form of martial art as any other swordsman elsewhere.

Up close and personal in a Xhosa stick fight

I remember as a kid growing up in a tough Pretoria neighbourhood, a bunch of us were totally inspired by the old gladiator movies we used to see at the drive-in bioscope.

Remember drive-in bioscope? The warm summer evenings when the rain came down just as the action was hotting up, and you’d watch the movie with the swish-swishing of the windscreen wipers for a soundtrack?

And the snack-bar kiosk? Foot-long hot dogs and candy floss? And the rusty speakers that crackled?

Anyhow, we’d watch Spartacus or something and for the next week we would lay into each other from all angles with home-made swords fashioned from tomato box planks. An occasionally painful, always exciting, sport.

So as I’m sitting on a hill at sunset overlooking Nelson Mandela’s home village of Qunu a half-century later, watching 2 grown men practise the time-honoured art of Xhosa stick fighting, it all comes back to me. This is Boys’ Own Magazine stuff.

The two Qunu guys, Zamikhaya Mandela and Simon Mani, are really good mates. But when it comes to stick fighting, a sport they both learned as goat-herding children, no quarter is given or taken.

They say nothing, but I can see from their looks and their knowing smiles that they don’t really believe me. Who in their right mind would use a good fighting stick for walking?

The great man Mandela himself recalls in Long Walk to Freedom: 'I learned to stick fight – essential knowledge to any rural African boy – and became adept at its various techniques, parrying blows, feinting in 1 direction and striking in another, breaking away from an opponent with quick footwork.'

The kids around here 1st use dried corn stalks as weapons. Later, they move on to carrying a long stick and a short stick wherever they go – just in case they are challenged. They learn the sport at their initiation school, and take it to the townships when they move to the city.

A couple of days later, I’m at Mama Tofu’s in a village near Chintsa in the Eastern Cape. We’ve had a deeply cultural experience with the magnificent Mama Tofu, and now it’s time for the stick fighting.

Two men take each other on in the rain, thrusting and parrying and thwacking away. But the one guy has a girlfriend who dances in the local troupe, and she can take it no more. She jumps in to defend her boyfriend, who’s taking a bit of a pounding.

And then the other guy’s dog joins in on the opposing side and the match becomes all about mud, shouting, barking and cheering, with, ultimately, grins and backslaps all around.

The next day, I find myself in the little town of Dutywa, nosing around the local market. There I spy a stall that sells fighting sticks. I buy one for R30.

'Who are you going to fight?' a couple of interested local youngsters ask.

'Nobody. It’s my new walking stick.'

They say nothing, but I can see from their looks and their knowing smiles that they don’t really believe me. Who in their right mind would use a good fighting stick for walking?

Category: Culture & History


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