Friday, February 18, 2011

Is It The End Of The Road For Fanagalo?

Is it coincidental that the story of the construction of the Tower of Babel, from the Book of Genesis, illustrates why we have a multiplicity of languages? The essence is that the people of Shinar (Babylonia) decided to build a city and giant tower that would reach into heaven. It was an enormous enterprise, and took a great deal of time and the effort of many --- all who spoke the same language. God then disrupted the project by confounding their language and scattering them upon the face of the earth.

I was born in a miner’s corrugated iron cottage at the Langlaagte Estates Gold Mine in Johannesburg. My maternal grandfather was a miner on the Crown Mines and both my parents were mining officials. My first real employment was at the beginning of 1955 when I was apprenticed as a heavy current electrician with the Blyvooruitzicht Gold Mine near Carletonville on the far West Rand. It was the practice of the mining companies, at the time, to employ labour recruited from areas south of the equator in Africa. What was interesting is that certain tribes were allocated to designated tasks eg the Nyasas(now Malawians) were waiters and clerks, the Shangaans from the former Portuguese East Africa had an aptitude for laying "pipes and tracks" underground, the Pondos were the drilling machine operators and the Basuto excelled at shaft sinking. Add to this mix the Italians and Hungarians trained at the former Government School of Mines and the result was a polyglot of nationalities and languages.

The mining bosses, being hard nosed businessmen, were prepared for it and all new employees had to undergo compulsory induction training which also included learning Fanagalo by rote (it is difficult to believe some of the recruits from Central Africa had to be taught how to walk with boots). Fanagalo is a pidgin (simplified language) based on isiZulu, English and Afrikaans and is traditionally used in the gold, diamond, coal, and copper mining industries in South Africa. It is used as a second language only and the number of speakers was estimated at "several hundred thousand” in 1975.

Kitchen Fanagalo is an isiZulu based and is perhaps unique because it is not based on any of the languages of the colonial or trading powers. The name "Fanagalo" is strung-together Nguni expressions meaning "liken+it+that". I clearly remember during induction training, the instructor shouting "FANAGALO" and the trainees responding by shouting "" FANAGASUCH". It was already in use in the nineteenth century in the former Natal Colony as a means for the colonists to communicate with their employees, long before diamonds and gold were discovered.

There are two variants of the language. MINE FANAGALO and KITCHEN FANAGALO, the latter version was in common use in KwaZulu-Natal. There was an attempt by Government during mid- 20th century to promote and standardise Fanagalo as a South African second language, under the name of "Basic Bantu". This move was probably inspired by the publication of the “Dictionary of and phrase-book and grammar of Fanagalo" compiled by J D Bold (1964 edition) which could be bought from the Central News Agency.

While Fanagalo is in decline, it is interesting to note that it has experienced a mild revival among South African expatriates, possibly as a manifestation of their South African origins and of a way of conveying solidarity in an informal manner.

The facts are that with the high unemployment rate among South Africans we are no longer dependent on labour recruited from outside the borders of South Africa. In addition there have been huge advances in the general education levels of particularly black South Africans.

It was hardly surprising when the representatives of the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) in South Africa recently announced that "Fanagalo has to go for safety’s sake". It was also acknowledged by the Chamber of Mines that Fanagalo is perceived as having an element of “baaskapheid " because it was used by the bosses to convey instructions.

While the aforegoing statements are true it is perhaps a pity that there has not been more recognition of the major impact made by Fanagalo as the only really effective communication medium between the various diverse language groups in the South African economy for a period spanning more than a 150 years. Let it not be forgotten that the use of Fanagalo probably resulted in the protection of many a life and limb.

PS ... Amos Mbamba, my Gardener, who is now almost 60 years old and was not educated beyond Grade 4, and I had a serious discussion (in Fanagalo) about these developments. We agree that we want to continue communicating in this manner because it makes us feel good. It is WIN: WIN. When we speak Fanagalo Amos thinks he is speaking standard English and I think, I am speaking impeccable isiZulu. At our age, not many things can be better than that!

Pieter Rautenbach

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