Every Christmas since the 1800s, boys and men collect in the Tshifudi cattle dip to test their mettle. The Venda tribe in North East South Africa compete in a tournament held in Limpopo Province of North South Africa. With temperature reaching over 30 degrees C, men compete with little shade and shelter against others to prove themselves not only to others, but to themselves. This used to be a ritual to select the bravest warriors, but in the modern day is used to usher young boys into manhood. It integrates a notion of identity and belonging. This is Musangwe.
In the 1800’s boys would bring their cattle to the river to be bathed, and the bulls would fight. The bulls fighting would then spill over into the boys play-fighting. Mischievous boys would sharpen their bull’s horns. The injured bull’s owner would fight in retribution. In the beginning Venda people were more seriously involved in pastoralism than they are today. Musangwe is a bare knuckle boxing competition that has turned from a passage into manhood into a sport for molding the character of young boys. The ritual is now used to teach young men to be brave in a time of joblessness and economic hardships. The competition is also teaches young boys to keep out of crime, how to respect women, and to fight only other men. The tradition is strictly bare knuckled and no gloves are allowed.
Combatants range from 9 years old to 90 years old. The fighters are split into different groups. Mambibi is for young boys 9-12. Next is Rovhasize or Rova for teenagers 13-18. These groups compete early in the morning until it gets later and it’s time for the groups of people to come to see. The fighters aged 18 and over are called,” Ngwenya” or Crocodiles. Fighters aged 35-45 years are called the “Masters” and those over 45 are referred to as “Legends”. Rivals are separated according to the side of the Lundevine River on which they reside. Northerners are always paired with Southerners in fights. Winning is done if a fighter bleeds, gets knocked out, or surrenders. Some fighters cover themselves in Muti, a traditional medicine extracted from trees and other plants. The word is derived from the Zulu word “Umuti”, meaning,”tree”, or in some cases refers to traditional medicine in general. Some fighters believe that one can counter muti by covering oneself in urine. A man can challenge another competitor by walking up to an individual or group with both fists held forward in from of him. If he approaches a group, a challenge can be accepted by anyone if they come forward with both fist held out in front. Sometimes some are unwilling to fight and will shove another person out of the group forcing them to meet the challenger. This practice is actually quite common.
Looking like regular boxing, the fist fighting escalates into unnatural, uncontrollable, and unpredictable pugilism. Musangwe also allows head butting, knees, and clinching. Fighting a knocked down opponent is against the rules, but people have been known to stomp on their opponent and taunt them to gain crowd support. Once a downed competitor regains his composure the fighting starts back up. When a fighter wants to admit defeat, he raises both hands in the air in surrender. Winning the fights doesn’t normally offer any money or a reward. Fighters choose to participate in Musangwe because it feels empowering.
Traditionally women could not fight or attend, but in the modern days they have been known to do both. Women usually stay after the fights are over to clean up the blood from the fields. There is a story of the most famous Musangwe fighter, Frans Malala. This man could kill anyone with a single punch. The story says that Frans, participating in a Musangwe bout, punched and killed his opponent.To prove that the death was accidental and that he in fact was innocent, the investigating magistrate ordered him to punch a donkey. If he killed the donkey in one punch, the magistrate would believe Frans and he would be free to go. Frans punched and killed the donkey, and subsequently was released of any charges.
Musangwe is also credited for being the training grounds for professional South African boxer Phillip Ndou. He has not won any major titles but has won numerous regional featherweight and light featherweight championships. The art is kept alive today by chief organizer and once invincible champion Tshilidzi “Poison” Ndavana, the President of the Tshaulu Musangwe Committee.
“The sport is hard and those who participate develop a hard heart. This trait teaches how to endure pain and how to stand up to challenge.” – Tshilidzi “Poison” Ndavana.
I would be remiss if I did not mention one of the most daring, controversial, and unique ringside medical practices in the modern world. A man by the name of Mr. Masikhwa serves as the emergency medical responder for the Musangwe fights and performs a “different” kind of CPR which uses re-hydration and stimulation of the male reproductive organ. Masikhwa learned the practice from his elders and claims that if a fighter is knocked unconscious, the testicles might ascend into the body all the way up to the kidneys and cause almost certain death. When a fighter is knocked out he removes the fighters shoes, and feels for the testes inside the scrotal sac. If they are not in place, the CPR is performed with stimulation of the organ and hard pressing on the kidneys to keep the testicles from ascending into the body until consciousness is restored. Once the testicles are back in their proper place, rehydration is performed by pouring water on the back of the head and pressure is still being placed on the kidneys so the testes do not try to ascend into the body again. When the patient recovers, he will soon be ready to fight another day.
– Jeff Woodard is the Human Resources and Public Relations Officer of the HAMA Association
Currently the HAMA Association is searching for more information on South Africa’s pugilist traditions. If you or someone you know practices Musangwe or other traditional systems from South Africa and want to share the knowledge, please contact us.
Learn more about Musangwe:
- Boxing into Manhood:
- Boxing that Makes the Heart Strong:
- Blood, knockout, or surrender:
- Musangwe Fight Club: