VhaVenda’s fighting spirit

2016-09-11 06:04
Fosta Madziba receives a blow from his opponent during traditional fist fighting at the VhaVenda Royal Heritage Festival. The king was in attendance. Picture: Leon Sadiki

Fosta Madziba receives a blow from his opponent during traditional fist fighting at the VhaVenda Royal Heritage Festival. The king was in attendance. Picture: Leon Sadiki

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Seated in a small, white marquee on one side of a makeshift boxing ring, which is merely a circle formed by spectators, VhaVenda King Toni Mphephu Ramabulana rested after leading thousands of his subjects on a 14km walk from Thohoyandou to Nandoni Dam, an exercise aimed at encouraging healthy living.

At the end of the walk, the king sat and enjoyed a show of indigenous knuckle-fist fighting, known as musangwe, on Friday.

At 35°C by noon, the faint onshore breeze from the expansive Nandoni Dam got swallowed by the sweltering heat, but this did little to deter the high-spirited fighters exchanging blows uphill by the waterside.

The cracking sound of bare knuckles and heavy punches reigned supreme as men covered in blood and sweat displayed their skill and valour. After all, they had a king to impress among a throng of vivacious and cheering spectators. Every fighter seemed desperate to be awarded the trophy for the best pugilist, awarded by the king himself.

On rare events like today, women are allowed to watch musangwe.

“Traditionally, women are not allowed to watch musangwe, except for events like this. It is decided upon at the discretion of the king. So, you can say, only once a year women get to see men exchange blows, but this is traditionally an activity exclusive to men,” explained Venda chief Livhuwani Matsila.

“It is different today in that the VhaVenda people have come together to celebrate their heritage and their kingdom in one place with their king,” he said.

Musangwe is one of the celebrated and popular traditional activities in Venda areas.

Although the games often leave opponents bruised or see them removed on stretchers, it must end in the ring. The opponents cannot take their fight anywhere else.

“The boxing is aimed at instilling respect among our boys. They know that their opponents are not their enemies, but that their fighting is part of celebrating our culture. Beyond culture, musangwe and our heritage weekend bring about a huge commercial boost to our small businesses, such as streets vendors, while tourism benefits massively. All hotels and guesthouses are fully booked this week,” Matsila said.

Friday’s event was part of the annual heritage weekend in the Venda region, which ended with the Royal Heritage Music Festival that attracts more than 15 000 people annually.

Things, however, started warming up with about 10 000 people attending the walk and staying on for musangwe.

This was the same day that was earlier planned for Mphephu Ramabulana to be traditionally crowned and officially awarded a recognition certificate of kingship by President Jacob Zuma.

This event was interdicted a week ago by Mphephu Ramabulana’s 25-year-old niece, Masindi Mphephu, who is contesting the throne of the VhaVenda kingdom.

While the court interdict was successful and the coronation event was stopped, the court explained that it did not affect the position of incumbent king, pending the outcome of a court hearing that has not yet been scheduled.

So, as he sat watching men sweating in the traditional boxing ring, Mphephu Ramabulana knew he had his own battle awaiting him – in court.

The king will take on his own niece in a continuing dispute over who should lead the VhaVenda kingdom.

Mphephu Ramabulana would not be drawn into the tribal leadership dispute, saying he was happy to be out and about spending his day with the community.

“I am really humbled by the support from my people. This fun walk was meant to foster unity among all of us and promote a healthy lifestyle,” he said.

“I promise all my people that I will continue to lead them with honour and integrity. With the unity exhibited at this event, it is clear that together, we can achieve a lot,” he said.

Matsila said the pending court matter “has no bearing whatsoever on the status of the king”, adding that communities came in numbers “as if nothing had happened in court” only a week before.


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