Fanakalo is a bridging language of communication in multilingual and multinational settings on South African mines [writers spell this pidgin as either Fanagalo or Fanakalo. Fanakalo is ‘the correct spelling in Zulu or Xhosa orthography’]. [1] In this essay, several factors about Fanakalo are examined: Fanakalo as a pidgin language in the mining industry; theories regarding its origins; negative and positive associations with this pidgin; the spread of it across Southern Africa; the varieties of Fanakalo; and lastly, examples of this pidgin language.

The language of contact:

Fanakalo is the lingua franca of the South African mining industry, spoken on a daily basis in the workplace. [2] Fanakalo is also defined as a Southern African pidgin language. [3] A pidgin originates in specific circumstances of contact between groups of people with different mother-tongues. [4]

Fanakalo spread to the diamond and gold mines in the South African interior (and subsequently to other African countries) in the late nineteenth century. [5] Fanakalo ‘became the vernacular of black labourers in the mines’: it ‘encompassed instructions and orders’. [6]  The mining industry comprises a heterogeneous workforce, [7] employing hundreds of thousands of workers from a multitude of ethnic backgrounds. [8] Workers come from different areas within South Africa, as well as other African countries (for example Mozambique, Zimbabwe and Malawi). [9] One mining operation can include multiple languages such as Xhosa, Sotho, Tswana, Ndebele, Zulu, and languages from Malawi, Swaziland and Mozambique. [10] Therefore, Fanakalo is utilized ‘as a contact language in the mines between people originating from different countries in Southern Africa, and between foremen and workers’ [11] [Wessels also mentions Afrikaans and English-speaking Whites, and European (such as Portuguese, Polish and German) immigrants contributing to the requirement of Fanakalo for communication on the mines]. [12]

Fanakalo functions as a shared means of communication between a work community speaking different languages. [13] This language is therefore the most effective instrument of communication within ‘a multilingual setting’. [14] Safety and productivity is thereby enhanced ‘in the domain of the mining culture’ and the language is still maintained today for (mainly) these reasons. [15]  Fanakalo is therefore connected to ‘a specific domain of work’ [16] and ‘is learned within the domain of labour relations’. [17] The mine workers thereby transfer this pidgin: as such, Fanakalo is acquired in an informal manner. [18]

Historically, however, Fanakalo was taught formally.. [19] Mesthrie states that it ‘[was] taught via a language-laboratory course and instruction manuals over a few weeks in the mines’. [20] Language courses were offered by most mining companies for labourers and managers. [21] All new Black and White recruits were given instruction when they commenced work. [22] These so-called induction programmes were initiated due to the 1950s ‘influx of what the industry termed “tropical boys” from central Africa’. [23]

The origins of Fanakalo:

According to Mesthrie, Fanakalo originated within a European-African contact setting within the historical circumstances of Dutch and British colonization (in 1652 and 1806 respectively). [24] More specifically, Fanakalo originated in the mid-nineteenth century in Natal when British settlers, Zulu speakers and Afrikaners came into contact. [25] The arrival of the British settlers and Afrikaners in Natal are dated in the early nineteenth century: during the late 1830s, Cape Afrikaners travelled to Natal (and subsequently founded the Boer republic of Natalia (1840-1843)). [26] Immigrants from England landed a decade later. [27] The development of the pidgin language in Natal is attributed to ‘the acute difficulties of communication’. [28] When indentured Indian workers of the Natal sugar plantations arrived from 1860, they helped to stabilize this pidgin. [29] It is worth noting, however, that it is not influenced by Indian dialects, as argued by Cole. [30] Indeed, the Indian languages had no economic value for interactions with the English and the Zulus. [31]

As previously indicated, Fanakalo spread to the diamond and gold mines in the South African interior (and subsequently to other African countries) in the late nineteenth century. Mesthrie therefore contests the theory that Fanakalo originated in the mines; in Natal on the plantations; and in the Eastern Cape in the early nineteenth century [32] The latter theory in particular, seems dubious, given that, amongst other things, the pidgin is predominantly Zulu-based, with ‘very little Xhosa.’ [33] Mesthrie thus asserts: “…the use of Fanakalo in Natal predated the arrival of Indian immigrants by at least ten years” (according to archival evidence). [34] Chronologically therefore, Fanakalo could not have originated via ‘language contact in the diamond and gold mines of the Transvaal and Orange Free State,’ as diggings began in the 1870s. [35] However, Newby-Rose affirms:

The exact mechanism by which the existing Natal pidgin was transferred to the Rand mines is somewhat obscure in the literature, but the steady migration of male Zulu labourers from Natal to the mines contributed to the statistical predominance of the Zulu language…among the workers from many cultures and backgrounds… [36]

Cole also rejects the view that the pidgin originated in the diamond and goldfields of Kimberley and Johannesburg: given their locale in Sotho-speaking areas, they ‘initially at least, must have depended mainly on local labour, but there is hardly anything in Fanakalo which can be derived from any of the Sotho languages’. [37]

Regarding so-called European-Zulu contact, Adendorff argues that predominantly English missionaries during the mid-nineteenth century in Natal were central to the origin of Fanakalo. [38] This is the roots of so-called ‘Mine Fanakalo’ [39] This has prompted some scholars to claim that ‘what is evident is that it is not necessary to identify the diamond and gold fields as contexts for the initial origins of Fanakalo, since Fanakalo was clearly in use well before the diggings began in the 1870s’. [40]

Mesthrie connects the origins of Fanakalo to European-African contact (owing to Dutch colonization (1652) and British colonization (1806)). [41] During the late 1830s, Cape Afrikaners travelled to Natal (and subsequently founded the Boer republic of Natalia (1840-1843)). [42] Immigrants from England landed a decade later. [43] The development of the pidgin language in Natal is attributed to ‘the acute difficulties of communication’. [44]

Fanakalo demonstrates contact between various languages: Germanic languages (English and Afrikaans), and the Nguni languages (predominantly Zulu). [45] Bold defines the basis of this pidgin as ‘a very much simplified form of Nguni (Zulu, Xhosa and related languages), with adaptations of modern terms from English, Dutch and Afrikaans’. [46]

The vocabulary of Fanakalo comprises approximately 70 percent Nguni, 24 percent English and 6 percent Afrikaans. [47] According to Bold, this pidgin evolved in cities like  Natal and ‘developed on diamond diggings, gold mines and farms to meet the urgent need for a common language that could easily be acquired by Zulus, Xhosas, Swazis [etcetera], and by the White men who employed them’. [48]

Negative and positive associations:

The term Fanakalo means ‘like this’: it refers ‘to the instructions of the master to the servant. [49] Mesthrie argues that Fanakalo is associated ‘with colonial racism and cheap labour.’ [50] He goes on to state that ‘the biggest gap in our knowledge of the pidgin is that the only available descriptions [by scholars] are based on master-servant discourse, written from a colonial and frequently racist  viewpoint. [51]

Pejorative names for Fanakalo include, for example: “Silunguboi (‘language used by Europeans to servant “boys”’), Basic Bantu, Mine Kafir, Kitchen Kafir, Kitchen Zulu, [and] Isikula ‘language of coolies’…” [52] Regarding the ‘master-servant connotation’, Fanakalo is considered a ‘stop-gap which might have been eradicated a long time ago if the White master had taken the trouble to learn the language of his servant’. [53]

In addition to colonial racism and cheap labour, Fanakalo is associated with ‘its denial to employees of access to the economic power of English…’ [54] It is for these reasons that intellectuals frequently disparage it. [55] According to Mesthrie, the majority of educated Blacks associate Fanakalo with ‘domination and racial bigotry.’ It ‘is resented as a language that creates distance between speakers, and prevents each side from learning the other’s language’. [56] Furthermore, English and Afrikaans are the preferred languages to further advancement in the mining workplace. [57] In contrast, however, Wessels states: ‘For the experienced employee, competence in Fanakalo is essential if he is to benefit from training for better paid, more highly skilled jobs and if he is to communicate effectively with White miners and those higher in the hierarchy’. [58]

In the study of Ravyse, participants emphasized reluctance to transfer the language ‘within the home domain to [their] children or family members’. [59] Three main viewpoints are highlighted in this regard: firstly, it is believed that this language ought to be exclusively ‘reserved for the mine’ (as it is perceived that this pidgin ‘determines a speaker’s future occupation which is coupled with a slightly negative association’). [60] In the second instance, Fanakalo is not associated with social mobility; and thirdly, it is stigmatized ‘as a language of the illiterate’. [61]

Fanakalo is also negatively perceived by language purists, academics and numerous educated and upper class Black people as a ‘mixed’ language. [62] It is also criticized, for example, as being too limited in its vocabulary and grammar: it is argued, amongst others, that emotions cannot be expressed and a technical vocabulary is non-existent. [63] Not all academics agree Brown, for instance, states that it has substantial technical vocabulary. [64] However, published research states that ‘the general acceptance which Fanakalo has won over the years is a powerful argument in favour of its retention as a practical language in the work place’. [65] Similarly, Ravyse argues that ‘[t]he need for communication within the mining industry seems to outweigh past pejorative views.’ [66]

The accommodative nature of Fanakalo that is used today in the multilingual and multinational context of the mining industry in South Africa is a salient contributory element of its maintenance. The context has changed significantly compared to the original context that led to its creation. As a result, different elements contributing to the maintenance of Fanakalo surface today. There is no longer a power relation linked. [67]

Ravyse also states that Fanakalo ‘is a marker of its speakers’ identity as miners’. [68] In the same vein, Fanakalo ‘shap[es] unity amongst the miners, and to some extent contributes[es] to the development of a shared work identity’. [69] Therefore, language within this context functions as ‘as a representation or expression of social allegiance within a specific context.’ [70] However, Fanakalo ‘is not accepted as a mainstream language related to a mainstream ethnic identity’. [71]

The reach of Fanakalo:

Adendorff affirms that the use of this pidgin is not confined to the mines. He writes: ‘…it is an interactional resource employed for a range of purposes and in a range of settings.’ [72] The 2011 study of Newby-Rose examines this pidgin as a language of trade in rural KwaZulu-Natal; she emphasizes, amongst others, the relationships between traders from Gujarat and Pakistan and their customers (Zulu speakers). [73] After 1990, this pidgin expanded ‘as new immigrants continue[d] to enter the country and acquire and use Fanakalo out of expediency’. [74] Ferraz asserts [in 1984] that Indian traders in Southern Africa [even in Zambia] are ‘now using it far beyond the borders of Natal’ to interact with customers. [75] Brown also states that it is utilized in markets in Natal, as well as factories and shops. [76]

According to Mesthrie, Fanakalo is also utilized ‘in a master-servant or employer-employee context in farms and cities in the provinces of Natal and Transvaal’. [77] Bold asserts that Fanakalo has also spread to domestic service spheres. [78] Furthermore, migrant labourers ‘continue to take a knowledge of it back to their own territories’, such as Angolan migrant labourers travelling back to Angola. [79] Fanakalo is also utilized in the cobalt and diamond industry in Zaire, the copper belt in Zambia, and the coal mines in Zimbabwe. [80] This pidgin is also utilized in business, hotels and fishing trawlers. [81]

In addition, population groups speaking languages other than the Nguni languages learn Fanakalo in order to be able to communicate comfortably in the South African or Zimbabwean workplace. [82] Different population groups, such as Venda and Pedi, can also interact via Fanakalo. [83] Fanakalo is also easily understood by the Nguni population groups in the Cape, Mozambique, Zimbabwe, and Malawi. [84] However, Cole rejects Fanakalo as the so-called lingua franca of Southern Africa. [85]

The varieties of Fanakalo:

Adendorff conceptualizes Fanakalo as ‘a continuum of varieties which, in their typical linguistic features, range from Zulu at the one pole to South African English at the other.’ [86] So-called ‘Mine Fanakalo’ is closer to Zulu, whilst ‘Garden Fanakalo’ is closest to English. [87] Adendorff provides an example of an exchange in Garden Fanakalo between a White employer and her Black gardener, ‘neither of whom [could] speak the other’s language (English and Zulu)’. [88] There also exists a Zambian Fanakalo called Chikabanga and a Shona-based Fanakalo in Zimbabwe, termed Chilapalapa. [89] Several dictionaries and phrasebooks for Fanakalo have been published, for example: Zulu-English-Mine Kafir Dictionary (Chamber of Mines Health and Safety committee, 1920); Woordeboek Afrikaans-Fanakalo, English/Fanakalo Dictionary (Yskor, Afdeling Onderwys en Opleiding, 1966); and Phrasebook, Grammar and Dictionary (Bold, 1951-1974). [90]

The vocabulary of Fanakalo is mixed. [91] Hanekom cites examples from Woordeboek vir Mynwerkers (1985): spor (Afrikaans: spoorlyn [railroad]); lusa (English: loosen); sampal (English: sample); mosha (Afrikaans: mors [spill]); skafu (Dutch: schaften [eat food]); ngozi (Zulu: ingozi [danger]); litshe (Zulu: ilitshe [rock]); mpumlo (Xhosa: impumlo [nose]). [92]

To illustrate the difference between Zulu and Fanakalo (in italics), herewith are two examples:

1) Zulu: Indoda ifuna ibhantshi layo.

Fanakalo: Lo indoda yena funa lo bantsh ka yena.

English: The man wants his coat/jacket. [93]

2) Zulu: Indoda ilandela ikhehla amanzi.

Fanakalo: Lo ndoda yena landa manzi ka lo madala.

English: The man went to fetch water for the old man. [94]


In this article, the function of Fanakalo as an imperative pidgin for communication in the mines of South Africa was discussed. This pidgin has been discussed as useful for various reasons, most notably for safety and productivity. It has been argued that Fanakalo did not originate in the mines in Johannesburg and Kimberley, but via contact between British settlers, Zulu speakers and Afrikaners in mid-nineteenth century Natal. Indentured Indian workers stabilized this pidgin, subsequently spreading it to the mines in the South African interior in the late nineteenth century.

The negative connotation of Fanakalo has also been discussed with reference to, for example, colonial racism and master-servant discourse. Black intellectuals generally reject it, given its associations with domination, racial bigotry and ‘impure’ language use. Speakers of Fanakalo themselves do not associate it with social mobility and literacy. However, Fanakalo is still maintained given its practical use in the workplace. It is also argued that it fosters unity amongst miners (therefore, a shared work identity).

The spread of Fanakalo beyond South African mines has also been examined as a language of trade, utilized, for example, on farms, in cities, and in the domestic service sphere. Fanakalo and its varieties are also emphasized to illustrate its heterogeneity. Lastly, examples of Fanakalo were provided to draw attention to its mixed vocabulary; and two examples were presented to demonstrate its differences to Zulu. 

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