Punching for pride and manhood

It’s a cloudy but very hot Saturday afternoon at Tshifudi village ­outside Thohoyandou, about 200km northeast of Polokwane in Limpopo’s Vhembe district.

More than 50 cars line up on the verge of the village’s dusty road, leading to the venue of Musangwe.This is where people of Venda gather to practise or watch a ­cultural sport in which men and boys from neighbouring villages beat the hell out of each other with their bare fists.

Musangwe has sparked a fierce debate in recent years between those who believe it should be ­regulated and those who argue the sport should be left in its current format.But standing here among a cheering crowd of more than 1?000 people, it is quite obvious ­Musangwe not only occupies a special place in the hearts of locals, but that it is a crucial part of their ­being and culture.

Now and then someone storms out of the circle of spectators, flexes his muscles provocatively and dares others to exchange blows.The rules and regulations of ­professional boxing do not apply here. There is no prize money, no ­referees, no qualification rounds, no preregistration, and no experience is required. All you need is guts, instinct and strength.

“A huna muthu afha, muthu ndi nne fhedzi” (There is no fighter here, I am the only one),” screams 21-year-old Thuso “Ngwazi” ­Munyai, a physically intimidating, tall youth, clad in soccer boots, jeans and a T-shirt.As his supporters scream ­“Ngwazi! Ngwazi!”, his detractors shout back: “Ngwazi ya vhuswa! (Ngwazi is a coward and as soft as porridge!)

There are six categories of ­fighters: Vho-Mammbide (9-13 years old), Roverside (14-17), Pre-Ngwenya (18-25), Ngwenya (26-35), Mature Ngwenya (36-45) and the ­Legends (45 and older).Musangwe organiser Tshilidzi “Poison” Ndevana says: “If you like the sport, you can start ­fighting any time.

But it is upon yourself to train because some of the people do not train. They ­believe in muti.

”Some feel duty bound to fight ­because they come from families with a history of producing ­Musangwe champions and want to maintain the legacy, Ndevana adds.Women are not allowed ­anywhere near the venue “because it is traditional” for men to be on their own.If you feel like fighting, all you need to do is storm into the centre of the circle, stretch your arm and point one fist at potential ­opponents.

Those willing to take you head-on will declare their intentions by pointing a fist back in retaliation.

If they are not in the mood to fight or fear you, they can simply ignore your provocation or raise their hands in surrender. If you want out during the fight, you simply raise your hands.Continuing to punch a ­surrendering fighter is an offence punishable immediately with one lash of the sjambok by the ­Musangwe elders.

Ndevana says: “We do not fight for prizes here. It can happen that someone is happy with your ­fighting skills and might decide to give you a prize. Here we fight for manhood.” He says Musangwe fighters are treated as “real men” in their ­villages. It is said that past ­warriors tasked with protecting their villages were chosen from among Musangwe champions.

Musangwe has been credited with producing professional ­boxers like Phillip “Time Bomb” Ndou, who hails from the area.

Ndou wants referees to officiate and fighters to wear T-shirts. He even brings a supply of T-shirts bearing the name of a sponsor.

Despite the bickering prompted by Ndou’s attempt to change this year’s format, the sport proceeds on and off, with Ngwazi stealing the show with his antics and punching prowess.

After he has defeated his first ­opponent hands down, nobody seems prepared to take him on.Others try to query his age, but he produces his ID, which confirms he was born in 1989.

In between, other younger ­fighters exchange blows.

With or without new rules, it is clear that Musangwe is ­special to the locals, who will ­keep converging here to fight for nothing but pride.

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