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Stick fighting: South Africa's martial art makes a comeback

From Robyn Curnow, CNN
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Stick fighting revival
  • Ancient rural sport of stick fighting is now making an impact in Western Cape townships
  • In his autobiography, Nelson Mandela recalls growing up with stick fighting
  • Competitors are armed with two sticks and protection for head and hands
  • Hundreds of people turn up to watch competitions that can go on for hours

Cape Town, South Africa (CNN) -- Before there was football, before cricket, or rugby, there was stick fighting.

The ancient martial art called "intonga" has been practiced in rural South Africa for centuries.

While it is a rural tradition, it has only recently been introduced to the townships of the Western Cape, where stick fighting contests are already attracting hundreds of spectators.

In these fast and furious battles of speed and technique, competitors wear a rugby scrum cap to protect their heads and bandages around their hands -- but this offers little protection from an opponent wielding a pair of two-foot sticks.

But most who gather to watch intonga look beyond the brutality, preferring to see it as a way of reconnecting with their culture.

"It reminds us of our old days when we were at home," one spectator explains. "The guys are not fighting really, they are just performing. It's a game they know from their fathers and forefathers."

Before the other sports codes existed in South Africa, people would stick fight. It was a very brilliant entertainment in Africa.
--Vuyisele Dyolotana, stick fight organizer

In his autobiography "Long Walk to Freedom," Nelson Mandela mentions a childhood in the Eastern Cape filled with stick-fighting.

Today, even young children are taking up the sport.

Ten-year-old Kamva Saki is well versed with the rules.

"When you hit the head you get six points. When you hit the neck you get four points," Saki said.

Hitting the hip scores you five points, Saki adds, while a blow to the leg gains you six points.

A tournament can last five hours, with fighter after fighter volunteering, or getting volunteered by the crowd who offer praise and sometimes some tips on fighting strategy.

Vuyisele Dyolotana, who organizes stick fighting competitions, tells people not to attack each other after the session and that each competitor must respect one another.

Dyolotana has worked his way around the Western Cape organizing tournaments in different townships. He says the sport's popularity is growing.

"Before the other sports codes (cricket, football and rugby) existed in South Africa, people would stick fight. It was a very brilliant entertainment in Africa," Dyolotana said.

"We are claiming stick fighting as our culture and we want it to be recognized as a sport."