​Lies, all lies – “manga manga” in SA English

Some years back a South African cellphone network operator used the phrase “No manga manga business” as the pay-off line in a series of advertisements. While there was no explicit reference to the meaning of “manga manga” in the ad, the context served to provide some sense: shady or underhand – the company was claiming that, perhaps unlike its competitors, there would be no “catch” when you bought its products. (A few years later the phrasing “manga manga” would become a matter of dispute between SA’s two other big mobile network operators.)

None of these instances approach the origin of “manga manga,” for ad agencies tend rather to pick up on existing popular idiomatic expressions than coin them. Yet its presence in these advertisements likely served to broaden the demographic range and frequency of use of the phrase, so one could say that “manga manga” trended into national consciousness from the time it was first used for commercial purposes (think also of “ayoba” and “yebo gogo”).

Whether it was overlooked, or whether its slight presence in written English in SA in the twentieth century meant it was deliberately excluded, “manga manga” does not occur as a headword in the 1996 A Dictionary of South African English on Historical Principles. Indeed, in earlier times it was not a straightforward matter for lexicographers to organise and search through large masses of language data to find particular words and phrases to include in a dictionary, and mostly they would have to wait for the words to come to them. In the last decade especially though, with advances in the internet and corpus lexicography, it has become second nature for dictionary editors to actively search out instances of words they might otherwise only encounter fleetingly. 

So it becomes possible, having observed “manga manga” in an advertisement, to begin a research procedure with Google Books (among other services) to find examples of its use over broader time periods and across widely dispersed domains, where necessary following up clues found online with checking and confirmation in library holdings. 

Thus one discovers that the first written instance of the phrase “manga manga” in English occurs at least as early as 1977, in a letter by South African writer Es’kia Mphahlele:

1977 (letter, 4 Jun.) Promised he’d go up specially to meet CN and tell him he actually saw the For Sale sign here with both eyes – no manga-manga. (Mphahlele in Chabani 1984: 137)

“Manga” is from the Zulu root “-anga”; it has to do with lies, liars and lying. One of the forms it occurs in is the word “amanga” – meaning lies, falsehood, deceit, or untruthfulness (Doke 1990: 11).

“Manga manga” – the repetition may indicate colloquialisation, or emphasis – in SA English usually occurs in the adjective-position in the longer phrase “manga manga business”. Thirteen of the 21 instances of “manga manga” produced between 1977 and 2016 that I found (in a non-exhausitive search) occur in this form. In two other instances in the dataset it occurs in the same position but preceding “financial statements” and “Sunday papers,” respectively. In all of these it might be understood to be translatable into English as lying, deceitful, underhand, evasive, simulated, hustling, cheating, dubious or just plain “dodgy shit” (see 2011 quote below). While “manga manga business” occurs at least from 1996, it has become more popular since the beginning of this decade (which roughly coincides with its advertising heyday): two-thirds of the quotes I analysed are from the 2009-2016 period, and in more than 70% of these “manga manga” is followed by “business”. By 2011, in some quotes it was explicitly contrasted with truth and truthfulness, and in others indexed criticism of the ANC government.

In the dataset “manga manga” also occurs five times as a noun and once as a verb. As a noun it can be glossed as duplicity, deceit, deception or underhandedness. As a verb, possibly a nonce formation, it seems to mean dissimulate, pretend, or act (see the 2009 quote).

Broadly, “manga manga” references a sense of falsity or fictitiousness that sets its object at a distance from truth and reality. As such it has manifest utility when there is a need to disparage commercial or political rivals.

Read more examples:

1994 (interview) We just kept striking and not going to classes. It was disciplined and it was through him [sc. Oliver Tambo] that there was – in our language, we say Manga-manga. That means you couldn’t go about being wild… And that was the discipline over all the students, and is the respect they had in him, almost all of them. (Gama in Callinicos 2004: 125)

1996 I want you to level with me, none of your manga-manga business with me, okay? (Mzamane: 62) *

2000 Drinking was serious undertaking, no manga-manga business, where he sought a guarantee that he could go on and on, without let, whereas camp life didn’t provide for that. (Langa: 41)

2009 As we walked through the restaurant entrance a small sparrow sat on the table edge with the Maître D breaking bread crumbs for the little guy and encouraging him to manga manga… and well, we knew we had arrived at a special place. **

2011 The closer we get to the ANC’s Mangaung conference, the more we’re going to experience what comedian Loyiso Gola describes as “ANC manga-manga business” (dodgy shit, for the uninformed). (31 Oct. Source)

2012 ANC manga manga begins (headline) (1 Oct. Source)

2016 We can say the IEC is not ready, but who cheated? Who bussed in the people? Who won the elections by manga manga business? (15 Jan. Source)

Image source: pixabay.com


* Andedating likely as the story occurs here in a collection.

** Accessed here on 10 November 2012. The site is not currently active and the page is unobtainable.


Callinicos, L. (2004) Oliver Tambo: beyond the Engeli Mountains. Cape Town: New Africa Books

Doke, C. M. et al (1990) English-Zulu Zulu-English Dictionary. Johannesburg: Witwatersrand University Press

Mphahlele, E. in N. Chabani Manganyi (ed.) (1984) Bury me at the marketplace: Selected letters of Es’kia Mphahlele 1943-1980. Braamfontein: Skotaville

Mzamane, M. V. (1996) ‘Woody’ in Children of the diaspora and other stories of exile. Florida Hills: Vivlia


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