A daily bulletin of news & opinion

3 February 2011

You might expect reports of the pending death of a language to prompt dewy-eyed
appeals from academics. But no one is shedding a tear for the demise of Fanagalo – most often heard 2,000 metres beneath the surface of the African continent.

“Upi lo bar?” has been the exclamation of generations of southern African miners at the end of long shifts breaking mineral-bearing rocks. Now South Africa’s powerful National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) wants them simply to ask: ‘’Where is the bar?’’ in English, or in another yet-to-be-agreed language.

Fanagalo, which has about 2,000 words, is unique among the world’s pidgins for drawing its structure from a non-colonial language, Zulu. As a result of South Africa’s tradition of using migrant mine labour, Fanagalo includes words from English, Afrikaans, Dutch, Xhosa and seven other languages. It is spoken in mines and, to some extent, above ground in Zimbabwe, Namibia, Mozambique, Zambia and South Africa.

The official reason given for calls to abolish Fanagalo is mine safety. Nhlanhla Thwala, head of the School of Literature and Language Studies at the University of Witwatersrand said young miners do not understand it. “Fanagalo is supported by older miners. Young people are able to speak to each other in English and in their home languages.”

Given the broad catchment area for recruitment, that is not always true, says Stella McCarthy at the employers’ organisation, the South African Chamber of Mines. She claims the NUM wants to do away with Fanagalo because it is used by bosses and is perceived as an element of “baaskapheid” – subservience to white foremen.

Lesiba Seshoka, spokesman for the NUM, claims South Africa’s 11 official languages offer plenty of alternatives. He also claims Fanagalo is holding back miners’ education prospects. “The language inculcates a different culture in the mines. We cannot have a place where people operate their own language,” he says.

In the absence of an obvious substitute for Fanagalo, the Chamber of Mines has commissioned a study on language policy. But it is difficult to imagine a language more practical than Fanagalo. South Africa wrestles to give parity to the 11 languages it recognised in its 1996 constitution. While English is regarded as the lingua franca in business, it is the first language of only 8 per cent of the population. The leading mother tongue is Zulu but even that is the first language of only 23 per cent.

Yet Thwala begs for understanding. “Fanagalo was designed for instruction purposes, not to express emotion.” To back his case, he cites bossy phrases from a 1960s phrasebook: “Wena azi lo golof? Mina hayifuna lo mampara mfan.” (Have you caddied before? I don’t want a useless boy.) “Tula!” (Be quiet). “Noko wena lahlega lo futi bol, hayikona mali.” (If you lose another ball, there will be no tip for you).


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