Centuries-old Zulu tradition of Stick-Fighting is today helping South Africa to curb gang violence. Here’s why

Shaka ZuluNguni stick-fighting, traditionally called donga, or dlala ‘nduku, is a popular sporting activity among South Africans, especially herdsmen and the youth.

According to SAHO, the origins of this indigenous sport within the Zulu community varies as some trace it to the times of Shaka Zulu and others to Amalandela, the son of Gumede, around 1670.

Nonetheless, it is commonly agreed that during Shaka’s reign this sport was used as a way of training young men for war and self-defense. Participation is restricted to males. Herdsmen also learned the sport to protect their livestock.

There are variations of the stick-fighting throughout Southern African tribes, who incorporate shields as part of the stick-fighting weaponry. For instance, Zulu stick-fighting uses an isikhwili or attacking stick, an ubhoko or defending stick and an ihawu or defending shield.

Traditionally, men own their fighting sticks, which are stored in the roofs of their houses.

The indigenous sport requires the use of three different sticks, each with a different purpose. The first is used for striking (Induku), the second for defense (Ubhoko), and there is also a short stick (umsila) accompanied by a small shield (ihawu) to protect the knuckles.

Before the fight begins, two fighters face each other and tap one another’s shield or sticks to show fair sportsmanship.

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Young Xhosa men engaging in traditional stick-fighting

In modern times stick-fighting has become a part of the wedding ceremony. As a way of both families getting to know each other, warriors from the groom’s household are welcome to contend with warriors from the bride’s side.

They do this by engaging in combat with one another. Other groups of warriors may also be welcome to join in while an “induna” or War Captain / Referee from each group of warriors keeps his crew in check and keeps order between fighters.

The game is a battle of sticks played by two people at a time. Participants can group themselves and take turns till a group emerges as the winner.

Stick-fighting is a martial art that has been practiced in southern Africa for centuries. The game could last for more than five hours and it is often interesting and spectacular to watch. The game could get bloody, however, opponents are warned to ensure fair play.

Injuries sustained from the fight could lead to permanent marks which are viewed as badges of honour with the most highly recognized being a scar on the head which is known as Inkamb’ beyibuza.

“At times, the stick fighters seem to be controlled by unseen forces. Fighting styles become unnatural, uncontrollable and unpredictable. Some believe that supernatural forces are at work and that success depends on how strong a combatant’s muti is,” reports Timeslive.co.za.

South African anti-apartheid revolutionary and former president, Nelson Mandela was said to have practiced Nguni stick-fighting as a child, and was featured on the Discovery and BBC reality TV show Last Man Standing. It has also been featured in Season 1 of the television series Deadliest Warrior.

Over time, the stick-fighting which was used as a way of training young men for war and self-defense evolved into a sporting activity for pleasure, but participants ended up with injuries. Hence, the game was banned in some parts of South Africa.

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South African boys practise stick-fighting in a Cape Town township

In several townships around Cape Town, stick-fighting is making a come-back and earning people money. Formerly, a traditional art of Intonga for rural Xhosa boys, today stick-fighting is being used to keep teenagers away from gang violence and drugs.

Film maker SiyaBonga Makhathini has directed the film “We Still are Warriors” which captures the essence of the modern-day Zulu stick-fighter, descendant of the kings of old.