• EN GARDE: Thulani Manzini (left) and Joseph Maluleke are often ridiculed by their community for their sport of choice. Picture: EUGENE GODDARD

  • EN GARDE: Thulani Manzini (left) and Joseph Maluleke are often ridiculed by their community for their sport of choice. Picture: EUGENE GODDARD

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, Madum a, 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.

"I explained what it's for but they didn't believe me. Only after my mother came to show them pictures of me fighting and some of my fencing certificates did they let me go. Now they just laugh when they drive past me walking down the street."

Getting to the Tyshler Fencing School in Randburg also is a regular exercise in gags and guffaws: "They (taxi drivers) crack jokes and wants to know if we're carrying body bags. When we tell them what we're doing they say things like: 'That's good to know because I have a fence that needs fixing'."

But the cousins can live with the laughter at their expense. The socioeconomic challenges they face, though, are no joke. Their gear; the breeches, canvas-like jackets, plastron or chest guard, gloves, wire-mesh helmets, shoes and swords - besides the épée and sabre there's also the foil - all costs a packet and are nigh impossible to afford for a pupil and a student sharing a three-room house in Diepkloof.

Manzini's invitation to Moscow would've remained a pipe dream had it not been for the generosity of Gerhard Rudolph, a veteran national colours fencer.

Maluleke also has no qualms about pointing out that everything he and Manzini own in the line of fencing are hand-me-downs or have been donated to them. Money is so tight Maluleke doesn't know how he's going to participate in the national championships in Bloemfontein at the end of the month. Missing it, though, just because he can't afford the travel and accommodation is also not an option: "I'm currently ranked fourth in the country and if I win against one of the top three guys" - Wood, New or Maduma - "I could make it to the international championships next year."

Without a sponsor, Maluleke faces an uphill battle.

"It's not so bad for juniors," he says while Manzini looks on quizzically. "But once you're an adult fencer, the money tends to dry up."

The last time Maluleke was a beneficiary of substantial funding in the furtherance of his fencing was when international fencing body Fédération Internationale D'Escrime paid for him to attend an instructor's course in Dakar.

On his return, Maluleke, coaching certificate in hand, arranged with a local primary school to open Soweto's second school for aspiring swordsmen - and women, of course ("swords people " just doesn't do it).

Although Ekuthuleni Fencing Club is still in its infancy, its membership is steadily growing, especially among starry-eyed youngsters with a flair for fanciful fighting such as the stuff beamed to them through martial arts movies.

Had he approached his old high school, Maluleke would probably still be called "Zorro - "But I don't mind. It's when we're subjected to racism that I really get upset. Sometimes people jeer at us saying things like: 'Why are you doing this. It's a white sport. Where do you get the money from?'"

At another tournament, the black fencers got together to indulge in a communal lunch, a popular custom, when a white competitor told them to clean up the mess: "This is not the location."

What he wants the most, says Maluleke, who has been at it for six years, is respect and recognition. "I don't want to be known as a black fencer. I want to be a fencer who represents his country, that's all."