Zulu Masculinities, Warrior Culture and Stick Fighting: Reassessing Male Violence and Virtue in South Africa


Carton, Benedict, and Robert Morrell. 2012. “Zulu Masculinities, Warrior Culture and Stick Fighting: Reassessing Male Violence and Virtue in South Africa.” Journal of Southern African Studies 38 (1): 31-53.

Authors: Benedict Carton, Robert Morrell


Zulu soldiers are renowned for decimating a British army at the Battle of Isandlwana in 1879. This military victory not only entrenched a legacy of merciless conquest long attributed to King Shaka, but also sensationalised the idea that Zulu men are natural-born killers. We reassess this stereotype by scrutinising the 'Shakan' version of martial culture and its reputed links to the formative encounters of Zulu men. One such experience involved boyhood exploits in stick fighting, a mostly rural sport associated with fearsome warriors and masculine aggression in South Africa. Using a gendered framework, we identify the customary obligations and homosocial allegiances shaping hierarchies of patriarchy which regulated stick fighting in a regional hotbed of competition, the Thukela Valley of KwaZulu-Natal. Focusing on a century of dramatic transformations (early 1800s to early 1900s), we examine overlooked vernacular expressions of stick fighting that reinforced the importance of self-mastery and 'honour', metaphors of manhood that bolstered kinship obligations during social turmoil. We also highlight the sport's sometimes unforgiving outcomes, including ruthless retribution and painful ostracism, which combined with encroaching forces of white domination to change rules of engagement and propel young men from their traditional upbringing into labour migrancy. However, the ethos of stick fighting — namely learning restraint — remained vital to the socialisation of boys.

Topics: Armed Conflict, Combatants, Male Combatants, Gender, Men, Boys, Masculinity/ies, Gendered Power Relations, Patriarchy Regions: Africa, Southern Africa Countries: South Africa

Year: 2012

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