Gloves off as Vhembe and Comedy Central slug it out

Comedy or racism? Participants in musangwe bare-knuckle 
boxing fights, such as this one in the Vhembe district take it very seriously (Photos: Mujahid Safodien/AFP)

Comedy or racism? Participants in musangwe bare-knuckle boxing fights, such as this one in the Vhembe district take it very seriously (Photos: Mujahid Safodien/AFP)

Musangwe, a bare-knuckle form of fist fighting that has been practised in parts of Limpopo since the 19th century, is barely understood by the majority of South Africans.

For many of us, it enters our consciousness in mid-December from news bulletins and disappears again until the next festive season. Inquiries into its meaning have, for the most part, been superficial, focusing on the spectacle of combat rather than on its social imperative.

For some years, Penthouse Motion Pictures, led by David Phume, himself a native of the Vhembe District, worked with the Vhembe Traditional Entertainment Organisation (VTEO) to change how the sport was presented by offering more in-depth and serialised coverage on stations such as Gau TV and Tshwane TV.

Branding his broadcasts as Musangwe Ultimate Fighter, Phume presented musangwe tournament style, with interviews with other key players, such as vhaVenda King Khosikhulu Toni Mphephu Ramabulana and the doctors who tend to the fighters.

When an offensive clip from Tosh.0, an American Comedy Central show did the rounds in Vhembe last year, it threatened to tear asunder the relationship between the VTEO, Penthouse and the musangwe fighters, which had been cultivated since 2012.

Daniel Tosh, the presenter of Tosh.0, uses black humour, in which offensiveness and irony are part of the modus operandi, allowing the comedians to make fun of issues that are considered taboo.

The section of the show that analyses videos sourced by the team refers to musangwe as tribal boxing used to pass the time in Africa “since there is no food”.

When a fallen fighter’s abdomen and groin are tended to by on-site doctors, the presenter surmises “they must be checking him for blood diamonds”. When they revive the fighter by pouring water over him, the presenter says: “Thanks to the filthy water, now he has brain damage and malaria.”

[Tosh.0 has ruffled feathers by trivialising up this traditional pastime. (Tosh.0)]

It doesn’t end there. Tosh’s analysis continues to build up momentum. “Anyone notice that the guy touching his head wears gloves but the guy touching his weenie doesn’t? No wonder the Aids is doing so well over there. I would love to be a fly on a kid’s face when they tell him what happened.”

The “checking him for blood diamonds” bit refers to a resuscitation method developed by the on-site doctors. One man, a mbira player identified in one of the Ultimate Fighter episodes as Mr Mushikwa, explains that it is to help the testicles descend, which can happen when a fighter has been hit too hard.

“That’s why you see me rushing off to take off their shoes, loosen up their pants and stick my hands in their manhood,” he says in one of the episodes. “It is to see if the testicles are still in the sack. If not, I have to press their kidneys for the testicles to descend so that I bring them into consciousness.”

At some point, the doctored Tosh.0 clip was seen by members of the VTEO. “Mr [Patrick] Ramalala [the chairperson] called me like, ‘What’s going on here? Are you selling our culture to the Americans?’ ” says Phume.

According to Phume, Tosh.O had lifted the clip from YouTube, blurred Penthouse’s Musangwe logo and used it without permission or in context, hence the basic, racist stereotypes. The infringement, allegedly committed in 2014, went undetected for years until Phume got the call from Ramalala last year.

“The video was already doing the rounds in Vhembe and creating instability among the fighters,” Phume says. “Some didn’t want to get involved with us because they felt they were being made fun of. We were not allowed to shoot any more and the Vhembe Traditional Entertainment Organisation cancelled our agreement with them.”

In a joint effort to commercialise the sport, along with VTEO, Phume had spent a significant amount of money on the corporate identity of the serialised shows and was running a thriving merchandise sideline.

Phume is clear about a few things. Neither he nor the VTEO own the sport. Part of its appeal is that it remains, to an extent, a sport in the service of a way of life. Some narratives about the origin of the sport posit that it became a way of selecting men and boys who were capable of going to battle.

[Opponents take part in Musangwe, a sport with cultural meaning (Mujahid Safodien/ AFP)]

Its fights are not categorised according to weight, as in other forms of boxing, but according to age, suggesting it is a form of social cohesion. Its adherents claim it is safer than popular forms of boxing in many ways, because one hard blow could spell the summoning of common sense and the end of the fight.

The grounds where the duels take place are considered sacred and rituals are performed before the tournaments begin. According to an eNCA documentary, local umuthi dealers claim their business ramps up in the musangwe season from December 16 to January 1.

Perhaps an encouraging sign, women are starting to become more visible in musangwe, both as audiences and as participants. Also, there is a festive rather than frenzied air about musangwe events because, mostly, no money exchanges hands between the winners and the losers.

Phume’s and others’ entrepreneurial spirits could change the fundamental spirit of the sport for better or for worse.

Because the individuals ridiculed in the Tosh.0 clip were clearly visible, putting Penthouse’s and other players’ involvement in the sport at stake, it became necessary to involve lawyers.

In December, Phume, Penthouse, the VTEO and Chief Lavhelesani Ntswethini Ronald Makuya launched the legal proceedings with respect to the copyright infringement and defamation.

The respondents, Viacom International, MTV Networks Africa, the owner and distributor of Comedy Central in Africa, and MultiChoice, are opposing the action.

In a statement, Comedy Central Africa said: “We are in the process of reviewing the court papers related to this matter of the Tosh.0 insert broadcast in January 2017 and will follow the due legal process.

“In due course we will file legal papers. But we are working towards finding an amicable resolution and continue regular engagement with all the relevant parties.

“As we have just been served these papers, we are beginning our assessment of the claim while at the same time have proactively engaged with David Phume to resolve this matter.

“At this early stage, it is not possible to know how this matter will be resolved.”

Asked whether they considered 
the content of the Tosh.0 segment racist, Comedy Central Africa said it was currently in the process of evaluating the issues raised in the court papers. “Given the fact that we are involved in a legal process we are unable to comment further on the footage.”

Should the court find wrongdoing in terms of copyright infringement or defamation, then the matter will be referred to another hearing to determine the scale of the damages.

Kwanele Sosibo

Kwanele Sosibo

Kwanele Sosibo studied journalism at Durban's ML Sultan Technikon before working at Independent Newspapers from 2000 to 2003. In 2005, he joined the Mail & Guardian's internship programme and later worked as a reporter at the paper between 2006 and 2008, before working as a researcher. He was the inaugural Eugene Saldanha Fellow in 2011. Read more from Kwanele Sosibo

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