South African Fencing History

Fencing originally took root in South Africa in 1898 when a club, “De Vrije Wapenbroeders”, was started in Pretoria. Boer prisoners-of-war on St Helena set up a fencing association, De Wapenbroeders, on 21 August 1901 led by a former instructor of the pre-war Pretoria club, HA de Haas. One of the best-known members of both associations, Dr JA Valks, was instrumental in the post-war flourishing of fencing in Pretoria.

In 1907 the South African Fencing Association was formed and WP Gate became the first South African to fence at an Olympic Games in Stockholm in 1912. Active fencing took place until the outbreak of World War I and was only revived in the 1930s. After World War II the sport began to flourish and the Cape and Transvaal Amateur Fencing Associations were formed in 1949.

The South African Amateur Fencing Association (SAAFA) was also constituted in that year and was in 1950 elected as a member of the South African Olympic Games Association and the international controlling body – the Fédération Internationale d’Escrime (FIE). The Natal and Orange Free State Fencing Associations were later founded and affiliated to SAAFA.

Participation at International level proceeded largely on an individual basis. SAAFA’s greatest success was achieved in 1963 when Brunhilde (“Pussy”) Berger was awarded the silver medal at the World Under-20 Championships in Ghent.

After South Africa was excluded from the Olympic Movement in 1966, SAAFA survived numerous attempts to expel it from FIE. It was largely due to the untiring efforts of the SAAFA President, Mr E “Butch” Daniels, supported by the Swiss and Italian fencing federations, that South Africa remained an FIE member, although fencers were barred from competing in World Senior and Junior Fencing Championships from 1966 to 1992. During this lengthy period of isolation, South Africans managed to compete in a handful of overseas competitions. Yair Chelouche and Glenda Benjamin won gold medals in the Spitzer International Under-17 Competitions held in Israel in 1974 and 1976 respectively.

Fencing has never been racially divided, and has always had a non-racial controlling body. In 1976 Glenda Benjamin (Western Province) became the first “coloured” fencer to win a national title, and in 1977 SAAFA became the first sporting body in South Africa to award national Springbok colours to a “non-white” sportsman, Len Davids, who was a member of the national fencing team to tour Europe and Israel in that year.

On our re-acceptance into the Olympic Movement in 1992 we were privileged to have four fencers represent South Africa at the Barcelona Olympic Games. The two women Heidi Botha and Rencia Nasson, and two men Dario Torrente and Hein van Garderen competed in all weapons. Since then South African fencers have competed in the Olympic Games in Athens in 2006 (women’s epee team) as well as Beijing in 2008 (men’s epee team and women’s sabre team).