Lingua franca of South Africa's mines set to fade slowly

THEUNISSEN, South Africa (Reuters) - In the bowels of Gold Fields’ Beatrix mine in South Africa’s Free State province, chief executive Nick Holland addresses the workers, congratulating them on having an injury-free month in their shaft during March.

Speaking English, his words are translated for the black miners by Beatrix boss Ben Haumann into Fanagalo, the lingua franca of South Africa’s mines which is set to get phased out.

A pidgin mix of Zulu, other African languages, English and Afrikaans, Fanagalo is not a recognized language and its small vocabulary of around 2,000 words is largely limited to commands, with plenty of obscenities thrown in, according to experts and those who know the tongue.

You will find dictionaries for it online but its name has no agreed spelling. Some use Fanagalo, others Fanakalo.

Academics trace its roots to the sugarcane fields in the Zulu heartland and it then spread to the country’s mines, where for decades it has been used, giving workers from Mozambique, Lesotho and several South African ethnic groups a common tongue.

But companies like Gold Fields, the world’s fourth largest gold miner, are looking to replace it with English or African languages such as Xhosa for cultural and safety reasons.

Other South African miners are doing the same. Harmony Gold has a policy to ensure all employees are English literate by 2015, which spokeswoman Marian van der Walt said “implies phasing out Fanagalo.”

Gold Fields has introduced a new policy to require its non-English speakers to start learning English and to require English and Afrikaans speakers to learn the most commonly spoken African language at the mine where they work.

“Fanagalo has a lot of cultural baggage. It’s not a nice way to talk to people. It’s insensitive,” Holland told Reuters.

“The older guys still use it but the young guys don’t want to use it. The problem is that it was too comfortable to use for too long,” he said.

Unions also want to see Fanagalo pushed aside.

“We are strongly of the view that the languages used should reflect the location of a mine,” said Lesiba Seshoka, spokesman for the National Union of Mineworkers.

Phasing out Fanagalo also comes against the backdrop of a drive to improve safety in South Africa’s mines, which are world’s deepest and among the most dangerous.

“The safety link with language is very important. You can get the message across in an emergency much more effectively in someone’s home language,” said Peter Turner, head of Gold Fields’ South African operations.

He was speaking to Reuters after he explained the new language policy to a group of workers underground, using Xhosa, a language which many of miners at Beatrix speak or understand.

There are also high rates of illiteracy and relatively low skill levels among South Africa’s mining labor force and experts have said this contributes to a poor safety culture.

Mines are therefore starting to require minimum education standards for entry-level workers of at least grade 10 and this is also seen as spelling a death knell for Fanagalo as it will mean the emerging labor force has at least rudimentary English.

But Fanagalo is hardly going to vanish from South Africa’s mines tomorrow.

Much of the labor force is in the 40 and 50 year old age bracket and will clearly fall back on a language they are used to and research shows its use is not confined underground.

Prof. Mbulungeni Madiba, a linguist at the University of Cape Town, said surveys done a few years ago at Beatrix showed that 36 percent of the workers there used Fanagalo when they were off work and away from the mine.

Seven percent described it as their “home language” but he said they were most likely migrant workers from places such as Mozambique who wanted to say they spoke something South African.

“It’s still pretty widely used,” he said.

Editing by Paul Casciato