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The cradle of an ancient sport

If you think fencing is an elitist, Eurocentric sport, here’s an enlightening bit of trivia for you: the first evidence of a fencing bout is to be found in Egypt and dates from 1 200 BC.
Fencing is based on the ancient art of sword fighting and there are three main disciplines in its modern incarnation:
epee evolved from the duelling sword of the nineteenth century. Thus, in modern epée fencing, the whole body is a valid target area and the rule of engagement is that the first to hit his or her opponent has scored. Foil was the weapon used to practice for duels. Modern foil therefore has a limited target area (the torso) and rules that limit the responses that a fencer can make to an attack. Thus, when attacked, a fencer must block the attack (parry) before counter-attacking. If this does not happen, then the counter attack will not count and the attacker will score. In epée and foil, you can only score with the point of the foil.
Sabre is a cutting and thrusting weapon. The target area is the body from the waist up — including the head — and like foil, you must parry before you counter-attack.

 

TRADITIONALLY, young guns like Thulani Manzini answer their ancestors' call to arms by heading to a hilltop where, surrounded by the vast sweep of the land, their readiness for manhood is tested through swirling stick fighting known as dlala 'nduku. Manzini, though, is no herd boy busy with a rite of passage. When he heads home after a duel or two, it's not with an isiquili or fighting stick but with an épée, the primary weapon fencers use to put each other to the sword.

A Grade 10 pupil at Madibane High School in Soweto, Manzini seems born to do battle like some D'Artagnan from Diepkloof. He only took up the sport a few months ago but in March this year participated in the World Cadet and Junior Fencing Championships in Moscow, along with about 1000 of the world's finest up-and-coming fencers.

 

Manzini, a limber lad of 1,88m, duelled with an Italian, a Namibian, and finally a plucky Korean barely taller than a standard sword.

"It was tough," says Manzini, "very tough." But in the end, the final touché was his, and an 18th position overall meant he returned home "with the best results ever for a junior fencer from South Africa".

Manzini's mentor of sorts, Joseph Maluleke, who introduced him to fencing, must feel his young cousin is overtaking him, but it's not the case. At just 21, Maluleke is a rising star on South Africa's fencing front. At the Junior African Championships in December 2010, he scored enough nods from his seniors and selectors to sail through to the World Championship in Jordan. Although it didn't go that well - "I only fought in two bouts and was eliminated in the first round" - Maluleke's piercing stare remained firmly fixed on a greater goal: Sello Maduma.

As South Africa's first black fencer to be awarded national colours, Maduma, next to Mike Wood and Jay New, is one of the country's top male adult fencers. Anyone who wants to get anywhere in local fencing has to get past them. It's like having to duel with Athos, Porthos and Aramis for acceptance into fencing's highest fold.

First, Maluleke had to fight his way through the ranks that, according to the former Olympic fencer and local instructor Gennady Tyshler, he did with aplomb. Finally, Maluleke assumed the en garde position last month for his biggest clash to date - a duel in Durban with Maduna.

"He thought it would be a walk in the park," says Maluleke, and it almost was. The first five-pointer easily went to the star fencer from Mamelodi, but Maluleke steeled himself and bounced back in the second bout. It was neck and neck.

Evenly matched at 14-14, Maluleke knew that his moment had come: "It was there for real, I could feel it."

Unfortunately, it wasn't to be. Maduma's superior form shone through and he clinched a decisive strike against Maluleke to win the third and final bout with a single point.

Respect is the toughest part for black fencers such as Manzini and Maluleke. In a community where they're often ridiculed and subjected to name-calling - "hey, stabane (gay guy)", because of their trademark white kit - black fencers have to put up a fight on and off the piste or fencing strip. Maluleke laughs about it now but he remembers going home one day with all his gear: "I was stopped by the cops. They wanted to know what I was carrying, thinking that maybe I'm doing crime or something. When they saw the swords" - besides the épée he also uses the sabre - "they said they have never seen such things, so they took me in."

Back at Diepkloof police station, he was interrogated about his "bag of blades" and other oddities

 

 

 
 

 

 

 

 
   
   
   
 

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