Best of 2010 | Xhosa Kung Fu30.12.2010
We arrive in Umfuleni, which is kind of like upper Khayelitsha, if there is such a thing. Drive passed the big shopping mall and zigzag around the people meandering back from the shops, women with bags of groceries on their heads. There’s a line of informal shops, spazas and hair salons in roadside shacks or converted ship containers. Down the road, under a green acacia tree and next to a big block of government flats there’s a circle, about 400 strong, surrounding two people in the process of battering each other with sticks. It’s a fierce and violent spectacle, the two fighters are not holding back, blocking and striking, stopping only to replace the sticks they break, until eventually the guy in the stripy shirt lands a head blow and cuts the dude in the Bloemfontein Celtic shirt. Then it’s all smiles while the medic daubs his head with antiseptic and covers the wound with a plaster. The judge, or Nduna, then marches both men into the middle of the circle and lifts Stripy’s hand into the air as the victor, Bloemfontein Celtic holds the sponge to his shaking head. Next time. Both fighters shake hands vigorously and smile. The crowd goes ballistic, clapping, whistling and stomping. An older man in a suit picks up a knobkierie and dances into the arena, showing everyone that underneath his pot belly and Sunday best, he’s still got it. The Nduna blows his whistle the crowd retreats to make space and the next two fighters square off.
Nguni Stick fighting, otherwise known as donga, or dlala ‘nduku (literally translated “playing with sticks”) is an ancient African martial art traditionally practiced by teenage boys in rural villages across Southern Africa, but it’s all but forgotten in the modern context. Stick fighting can be traced as far back in Zulu culture as far as chief Amalandela, son of Gumede, who inhabited the Umhlatuze valley back in about 1670. However as people have migrated to the cities in the modern era, stick fighting has increasingly receded in relevance and is now only practiced in the rural villages where traditional culture is still largely in tact. Enter social entrepreneur Charles Maisel who stumbled across the idea to hold stick fighting tournaments in the townships and enrolled the help of Vuyisile Dyolotana, a skinny vegetarian rastaman originally hailing form Mthata but residing in Khayelitsha since the early 90s. Vuyisile immediately saw the potential. This, after all, is a discipline or martial art that many ‘kasi dwellers would have played as children before moving to the city. In the rural areas Donga or dlala ‘nduku fulfills important social and cultural functions. Primarily it’s a skill set passed down from fathers to their sons. It teaches discipline and focus, but most importantly it functions like a pressure release valve. As Vuyisile says, “It reconnects us to our culture. In the rural areas you often hear stories about how someone was disciplined with sticks. But these days, in the townships if you hit someone with a stick they come back with a knife or a gun.” Stick fighting provides a safe structure for dealing with disputes and petty grudges, like a ‘kasi fight club. Success builds pride and status and creates stick fighting heroes in the community. And then, of course, it’s an incredibly engaging spectacle. The crowd literally throngs around the fighters and all along the balcony of the tenement building, jostling for better positions to watch.
“It’s like Xhosa WWE!” I say to a tipsy guy called Somza on the balcony.
“Nah!” He smiles and lurches towards me, pulling me close. “This is Xhosa kung fu!” he slurs in my ear.
Next up it’s a young guy with a chiskop against a lanky older dude in a Pirates jersey with a revolutionary Lenin goatie. Chiskop is a hitter. All aggression. A fighter who aims to win by striking at his opponent relentlessly. The lanky Pirate is a blocker and a more elegant fighter, parrying the blows and looking for his opening. Striking into the gaps and slowly accruing points. The judges score the bouts according to where the blows land, a strike to the legs, arms, chest and head correlates into points. It’s a big crowd for a tournament arranged for less than R1500. Each of the 15 fighters is paid R30 for competing and the overall winner takes home a prize of R1000. But that just indicates how popular the sport is and the momentum is growing. New fighters are coming up to Vuyisile between each fight and asking to be next. Young bucks keen to prove themselves in front of the crowd, and scoop the thousand buck prize. Next weekend, on Sunday, Vuyisile has organised another tournament at Nyanga junction, in the open space behind the taxi rank.
Based on the success of the first few tournaments and the groundswell of interest, Vuyisile wants to take stick fighting events to Joburg, Durban, PE, Bloem and all over South Africa as soon as possible. Charles and Vuyisile have sumbled onto a sure fire thing. Stick fighting could easily be to South Africa what Muay Thai is to Thailand, or Sumo to Japan. A massive consumer sport. It’s visceral and exciting and taps into a rich historical vein. And gauging from the public interest on display in Umfuleni, it’s poised to explode in popularity. After just a few weeks of organising local tournaments they’ve already been offered funding from provincial government to establish social stick fighting clubs and run tournaments around Cape Town.
Unexpectedly, Chiskop, the hitter breaks through the Pirate’s defences and lands a blow on the head. The Pirate starts bleeding, Vuyisile blows his whistle and the Pirate retreats to sit under the acacia tree and let the medic swab his wound. Vuyisile picks up two bicycle helmets and offers them to the fighters. The guys just laugh and shake their heads. No thanks brah. The crowd picks up on it and jeers Vuyisile and the helmets, he tosses them under the tree and awards the fight to the young Chiskop. The semi final is about to start, the two guys are squaring up to each other with intent, swinging their sticks or wrapping cloth around their blocking hand. The whistle blows but we’re on our way out, extracting myself from the impromptu ‘kasi collosseum. Without doubt, this thing is going to be huge. See you this Sunday in Nyanga.
*All images © Andy Davis