This article looks at the history of an indigenous Nguni sport known as Stick Fighting, which was popular in the Nguni ethnic group (Zulu). It further looks at how the sport has evolved over time. The word or term Nguni is the collective name for ethnic groups of Bantu people residing in the Southern Africa. These groups are divided into Southern Nguni and Northern Nguni. The Southern Nguni consist of Zulu, Ndebele and Swazi people and the Northern Nguni comprises of Xhosa, Bomvana, Mpondo and Thembu people.[i]
Zulu Stick fight
There is a great debate about the origins of this indigenous sport within the Zulu group, some trace it to the times of Shaka Zulu and others to Amalandela, the son of Gumede, around 1670. However it is generally agreed that during Shaka’s reign this sport was used as a way of training young men for war and self-defense.[ii] This was extended to the times of Dingaan, who was Shaka’s successor. As new leaders emerged the purpose of stick fighting also changed. During the reign Cetshwayo who succeeded Dingaan, it was used as means of resolving internal disputes, however, there were protocols as it was not intended for the purposes of killing.[iii]
Stick fighting forms an integral part of Zulu cultural tradition, fulfilling as it does an important teaching purpose. As such, for Zulu males, stick fighting is pivotal in upholding a social system that constructs accepted roles and modes of behavior.[iv]
Participation is restricted to males only, there is no specific age for when one should start practicing and generally boys learn the activity while they are heading the cattle. This provides an opportunity for them to fight their way up to the position of leadership among other herders. Young boys learn this by observing and imitation. The boys also use the opportunity to sharpen their skills. At this stage they use small tree shrubs instead of real sticks. Real sticks are allowed, but when they are used; the fighters avoid hitting each other’s heads.[v] Following this stage young men graduate and participate in public ceremonies such as social gatherings (inter-district stick fighting competitions) and weddings. Fighters and their sticks are usually ritually prepared using traditional medicine prepared by a herbalist.[vi] The fights are officiated either by Induna yenzinsizwa (headmen of young men also referred to as igoso; or umphathi wezinsizwa (war captains) officials who ensure that things do not get out of hand.
Traditionally, men own their fighting sticks, which are stored in the roofs of their houses. In most cases a man would own a variety of sticks from which a selection would be made by the owner before a fight. At the age of 16 a Zulu boy would be taken into the forest by his father where he would cut his own stick from the trees. By the time the boy reaches adulthood he may acquire further sticks, either making them himself or having sticks made by a specialist.[vii]
The activity of stick fighting activity requires the use of three different sticks, each with a different purpose. The first is used for striking (Induku), the second for defense i.e. body protection (Ubhoko), this stick long comparing to the one for striking; there is also a short stick (umsila) accompanied by a small shield (ihawu) to protect the knuckles.[viii]
Induku is described as “ a strong stick or shaft of wood without a knob. The stick is carved smooth and used specifically for stick fighting. The length of the induku depends on the physical stature of its owner, but is generally about 88 centimetres in length. The induku’s circumference increases slightly from bottom to top and the extra weight that the head carries enhances the mobility of the stick during offensive manoeuvres. A piece of cowhide can be tied around one end of the stick to secure the fighter’s grip on the weapon, and the whisk of a cow’s tail can be tied around the bottom of the stick to hide a sharp point. Although this sharp point can be used for stabbing, doing so is considered inappropriate during an honorable stick fight.”[ix]
Ubhoko is described as “ a long, smooth stick that tapers down to a sharp point. As a defensive weapon, it is skilfully manoeuvred with the wrist of the left hand and used to protect the body of a combatant from the opponent’s blows. Although its length depends on the physical stature of its owner, the ubhoko is meant to ensure protection from head to foot, so is notably longer than induku. Ubhoko is generally about 165 centimetres in length. Although the ubhoko could be used as a stabbing weapon; in a stick fight, protocol demands that it be used exclusively for the purpose of defense”[x]
Umsila is described as being “ held in the left hand together with ubhoko. Not used for fighting as such, it is used instead to uphold the small shield, or ihawu, that protects the left hand. Fighters in Nongoma maintain that umsila is also used to protect the face during a stick fight. As an aesthetic accessory, Nongoma fighters tie strings of antelope skin to the top of umsila.”[xi]
Ihawu is described as “a relatively small and oval-shaped piece of cow skin, held in the left hand. During Shaka’s regime, warriors were ranked by means of the colour of the shields they carried. There is no set size for ihawu, although it should be large enough to protect the hand and wrist and small enough not to impede on ubhoko’s mobility. As a rule, however, the shield used for stick fighting is between 55 centimetres and 63 centimetres long and 31 to 33 centimetres wide.”[xii]
Before the fight begins two fighters face each other and tap one another’s shield or sticks. This is viewed as fair sportsmanship. In other instances this rule is not followed as the stick fighters launch the fight by landing chopping blows. These blows are dangerous as they are meant to overpower the opponent, resulting in serious injuries.
Some of these injuries or permanent marks assume added importance as they are viewed as badges of honour, the most highly recognized being a scar on the head which is known as inkamb’ beyibuza (wherever you go people ask what’s that from?).
The evolution of stick fighting
In time this also meant a change from stick fighting being used as a way of training young men for war and self-defense, to a sport that at times could get out of control. This has occurred when hostilities have gone beyond the sporting grounds, placing the lives of non-participants’ under threat. This is one of the reasons why in past centuries the sport took place in an open space away from the homestead. The character of the fight also depends on the mood and occasion as some fights take place at organized tournaments. Stick fighting is also popular during weddings or at young women’s coming out ceremonies called Umemulo. Young and single participants known as Amasoka are not only hoping to win, but also to make mark for themselves by being favorites and being popular among the girls. [xiii]
[iii] ibid ↵
[iv]Cotzee HM, 2002, Playing Sticks: An exploration of Zulu Stick Fighting as performance, ResearchGate https://www.researchgate.net/publication/233268437_Playing_sticks_An_exploration_of_Zulu_stick_fighting_as_performance 10.09.2016 ↵
[v] ibid ↵
[vii] Cotzee HM, 2002 Zulu Stick Fighting: A Socio-Historical Overview, American crisis http://www.americancrisis.us/docs/2013_06_23_081249_0_zulu_stick_fighting_by_mari-heleen_coetzee.pdf 15.09.2016 ↵
[viii] Nxumalo S, The influence A10 – Week zulu stick fighting intervention programme has on motor proficiency and health-related physical fitness of prepubescent zulu males, University of Zululand http://uzspace.uzulu.ac.za/bitstream/handle/10530/1111/THE+INFLUENCE+A+10-WEEK+ZULU+STICK+FIGHTING.pdf;jsessionid=152FB86CED00A5470E9AF09FBF639E28?sequence=1 Date accessed 18.09.2016< ↵
[ix] Cotzee HM, Zulu Stick Fighting: A Socio-Historical Overview, American crisis http://www.americancrisis.us/docs/2013_06_23_081249_0_zulu_stick_fighting_by_mari-heleen_coetzee.pdf 15.09.2016 ↵
[x] ibid ↵
[xi] Ibid ↵
[xii] Ibid ↵
[xiii]Carton B, 2012, Zulu masculinities, Warrior culture and stick fighting: Reassessing male violence and virtue in South Africa, Journal of Southern African Studies https://www.researchgate.net/publication/241729963_Zulu_Masculinities_Warrior_Culture_and_Stick_Fighting_Reassessing_Male_Violence_and_Virtue_in_South_Africa 18.09.2016
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