Photo: Simphiwe Mbokazi.

The new generation of South African miners would rather brave Shakespeare’s tongue than speak Fanagalo, a language that has been spoken in the bowels of the earth for the past century and which miners now want abolished and phased out to improve communication and reduce accidents.

Lesiba Seshoka, the spokesman for the National Union of Mineworkers, said because South Africa had 11 official languages, workers wanted nothing more to do with Fanagalo. He said the hybrid language did not help miners’ prospects of acquiring skills.

“As far as communication is concerned, any language can be used, with preference for the indigenous language where the mine is based. For example, if a mine is based in Limpopo, Pedi can be used as a form of communication.”

Stella Carthy, an assistant skills development officer at the Chamber of Mines, said Fanagalo had been perceived as an element of “baaskapheid” because it was used by bosses to give instructions.

Carthy said the question was with what language to replace Fanagalo. She said a study on language policy would be released by the chamber at the end of the month.

“We want to know the profile of the people who want to learn another language other than Fanagalo. Once we complete the research, we will put a programme in place.”

Seshoka said the union would oppose the use of the language as long as it stood in the way of training at work.

“It is hindering progress as far as training in adult basic education and training is concerned. I mean, it inculcates a different culture in the mines. Mineworkers are ordinary people who lead ordinary lives, we can’t have a place where people operate their own language.”

Academics are also calling for the introduction of a language policy at mining companies to improve safety and communication.

Nhlanhla Thwala, the head of the Wits School of Literature and Language Studies, said it was important for the mining industry to find out from the workers which languages they preferred to use.

He said Fanagalo was supported by the older generation of miners who were trained to work in mines differently.

“Young people are able to speak with each other in English and they want to speak in their home languages.

“If worker unions don’t want Fanagalo, how can we impose it?” Thwala asked.

Fanagalo is a pidgin (simplified language), which was first developed around the Eastern Cape and then in the KwaZulu-Natal sugar cane plantations and adapted for mining purposes. Fanagalo does not demonstrate the full range of a language. It has about 2 000 words, about 500 of which are swear words, and it has little or no grammar. It was designed for instruction purposes and not to express human emotion, Thwala said.

Fanagalo is a mixed version of Zulu, Xhosa and related languages, with adaptations of modern terms from English, Dutch and Afrikaans.

It evolved from contact between Europeans and Africans in South Africa and later also in Zimbabwe, Mozambique and even Malawi. - Dineo Matomela