This article appeared in Fighter magazine, May 2001, written by Swedish journalist Paul Blomgren. I have had to make slight edits due to translation from Swedish.
These guys have not trained systematically. They don't know a thousand sequences. But what they do know is that a hit is a hit. Piper is not a martial art; it is a means to survive.
Nigel February, who grew up in the gang controlled areas outside Cape Town, South Africa, describes how gang members use the knife. Gathered under names like Hard Livings, Americans, The Firm, 26s and 28s they have contributed to Cape Town's reputation as the murder capital of the world.
"Left, right - one, two, three, four. Left, right - one, two, three, four". In rows of four the prisoners are moving rhythmically on their knees as they polish the cold floor of the prison corridor. We are deep down inside the notorious Pollsmoor prison and its maximum-security ward. Here the prisoners are sentenced for murder and repeated rapes. It is damp and cold in the overcrowded cells where up to thirty prisoners share a few square meters. Outside a guard with a tense facial expression is holding tightly onto the straps of a massive barking boerbull dog.
Behind the locked doors everything is regulated by gang rules. Conflicts are solved with violence. To show fear could be to sign your own death sentence. Murder is not uncommon in here, neither are attacks on guards. The gang identity is tattooed onto the skin, in the neck and in the face. It has no expiry date. Weapons are manufactured from toothbrushes and razor blades that are smuggled out of the hospital clinic.
During the dark hours at night the prisoners practice the knife techniques that are typical of South African gang members
Intention to cause harm
It is an early Sunday morning. Nigel February and his partner Lloyd de Jongh are on their way to the sleepy town of Somerset West a few miles outside Cape Town. Rumours about Piper, Nigel's self-defence system, have spread and today they are invited to the Kadoshi Judokwai hall to give a class to a group of Atemi Jitsu students.
Somerset West is located in the rich wine district and the population is mainly made up of whites. This tiny town is characterised by a growing sense of insecurity and fear. Here the levels of murder, rape and armed robberies has increased during the 90s, while at the same time the police has been forced to focus their resources on the metropolitan areas of Cape Town.
Nigel and Lloyd are part of the so-called "coloured" group of people. It is an invented label that the apartheid regime put on people who as a result of mixed marriages were considered by the regime as too dark or too bright in complexion to be classified as "white" or "African". Some of the so-called coloured townships are today more or less controlled by the gangs that operate around Cape Town. Nigel and Lloyd have both been raised in some of the hardest gang areas, Mitchell's Plain and Elsie's River, where armed attacks and knife fights are common. As an illustration of the violent reality they live in, Lloyd's car has slug holes in the rear and above the front door after an attack three weeks earlier.
- I witnessed many knife fights as I grew up. Every coloured person knows how to use the blade since they are children, says Nigel.
Nigel studied various martial arts, kickboxing, aikido, kung fu, judo, jiu jitsu, pentjak silat and a number of other systems. But still he didn't think he found any answers to how to counter what he had seen at home on the street.
- Instead my father helped me a lot in understanding how the criminal thinks, just that street smartness. I was a child when I saw him use the blade, and it was very frightening. I think it was frightening because there was intent. Intent, that is what is missing in most of the martial arts systems. But that is what he had. I saw him use the blade and it was devastating [that] somebody with no training could do that much damage. Intent, that is where Piper wins most of its fights, says Nigel.
Walk like a gangster
- This is what is happening in the streets. Let me tell you about that, starts Nigel.
Some thirty members of the class are listening attentively to the two coloured guys: a situation that in the new South Africa is no longer very unusual. But the relations and interactions between the people of South Africa still have a flavour of prejudices and suspiciousness. To these white students it is as exotic to get a glimpse of the realities of gang life in the townships, as it is for an average Swede to join the Sames on reindeer herding for a day. As Nigel speaks to his fellow countrymen he seem quite aware of this and plays witty with the prejudices.
- When you go to our area and see flying bricks coming at you, don't worry. We use them since we are too poor to afford ordinary pets.
Each student has been supplied with a wooden knife. Nigel and Lloyd themselves are always using sharp blades for practice. They say it helps them conquer the natural human fear of the blade.
- The essence of fighting is attitude. I'm talking to you as criminals now! Relax and roll your shoulders. Intimidate the opponent, like Shaka Zulu would do it! Says Nigel and stomps his foot hard to the ground.
He has asked the students to try to walk like gangsters and they are now swaying around the dojo concentrating on looking tough.
- Did you teach any whites before? one student asks.
- You are actually the first, so now we are gonna be robbed by white people as well, Nigel replies.
Stop thinking martial art
The movements of Piper are basically modelled on fighting techniques of the Zulu people, which to Africans and so-called coloureds are more natural ways of moving the body. To white South Africans they are not as easy to copy. In the beginning it looks as fluent as when a Swedish tourist tries to samba for the first time. The sensei of the club gets frustrated by his and his student's inability and asks Nigel to correct his stance.
- Stop thinking martial art, stand like normal people. Good guys do martial arts. Bad guys don't! replies Nigel.
- But this is like watching a bad disco. We need more practice to get the drill, the sensei objects impatiently.
- No! Just look at it and try to copy it. Try to look at it with a fresh pair of eyes, says Nigel and starts to move the Piper way. He switches between rapid thrusts and rolling movements designed to confuse and distract. By snapping his fingers, stomping his feet and alternatively raising and lowering his shoulders he distracts the attention from the knife. Sometimes he is holding the knife in his right hand, only to hold it in his left hand the next split second.
- We can't learn that fast. We don't have the background to pick it up like that, complains sensei, but still he can't avoid smiling a bit as he looks around to see his students in their brave efforts to move like gangsters.
- Get your sh*t together, cause we're gonna go rob some people after this, says Nigel and bursts out laughing.
Confuse and distract
Nigel walks around among the students who are now practicing in pairs of two. One of the students is holding the knife like he was gonna cut some bread and Nigel is correcting him.
- Most systems deal with straight thrusts. It can't deal with how criminals use the knife here. To slash for them is just a way to cut down on your body movements. They will rip and tear chunks of flesh. If you don't believe me, go to the morgue and see how people are stabbed, says Nigel and he knows what he is talking about.
Nigel and his students have for a long time studied how the knife is being used by the criminals as well as what the consequences are. The results from the morgues show that a majority of the fatalities caused by knife resulted from massive trauma towards the throat and left side ribcage. These are maybe not surprising results, but they could also draw other conclusions from their research.
- Sometimes the blade had had to suffer so much stress itself that it had snapped off in the body. The method that the Piper guys are using is so intense that even the steel snaps.
The basics of Piper are the rhythm, Nigel argues. It is only a question of finding it, of feeling it.
- Your intentions must basically rule what you do. You have to be loose and feel the flow. And when you start doing the Piper dance, that is when fear and confusion comes in.
Fear, to confuse and scare the opponent before the attack starts, is according to Nigel the most important aspect of Piper.
- Most attacks happen at night when it is dark and you can't see the guy. You hear these strange sounds coming at you and you react to where the sounds come from. You hear a click on this side and the blade comes down on that side.
Some of Nigel's friends and relatives belonged to the gangs or have spent time in jail.
- I used to sit in their company and find out what they did. And they were only too happy to show me. They would demonstrate what they actually did to someone in prison or when they killed someone in the street.
Nigel, who had many years of martial arts training, started to document and systematise techniques that previously didn't even have a name.
- The word Piper comes from one of the words that one of the gang members actually used in prison when they were busy drilling. When they practice Piper it is more like a dance type of thing, so they would be stoned and just play around with the knife. One guy would count off, "one two three Piper" then he switches his blade. He counts off "one two three piper" he clicks, stops, and switches the blade. So that is like a ritual dance that they do. With "Piper" I could mention a hundred years in one word
Nigel says that sometimes it is also referred to as Zulu knife fighting, or African knife fighting, but it mentions only one of Pipers influences. The Zulus didn't use knives in combat, but had advanced techniques for spears, assegais and knobkerries. It was the Asian (Malay) slaves who knew how to carry and conceal knives. When the two groups met in prison the techniques were developed. And that they are efficient is proved by the national crime statistics. Or as Nigel puts it: "Piper has an impressive resume".
According to the South African Police Service the number of murders has decreased with 20 % since the country was freed from apartheid in 1994. Decreases have been noted in all provinces but one, Western Cape, the province dominated by Cape Town. Instead the murder rate has increased with close to 30 % in this province during the same period. Last year 21.683 murders where reported in South Africa. Of these 3.396 murders where committed in the Western Cape alone, which is 80 murders per 100.000 inhabitants. This makes Cape Town the most murder frequent area of the country. Corresponding figures for Sweden last year was 175 murders nationally, which is 2 murders per 100.000 inhabitants.
Nigel is standing at the end of the tatami monitoring the training session. The class in Somerset West is nearly finished and the movements are starting to appear a little bit more fluid.
- Hey, I've got 30 people in my new gang now, says Nigel and smiles.
Text & Photos: Paul Blomgren