The man who was supposed to be signing for the deaf at Nelson Mandela’s memorial service was a fraud, according to sign language experts.
While dignitaries addressed the crowd at the former South African president’s globally broadcast memorial, the man produced a series of hand signals that meant absolutely nothing, observers said on Wednesday.
“He wasn’t even doing anything. There was not one sign there. Nothing,” said Cara Loening, director of Sign Language Education and Development in Cape Town. “He was literally flapping his arms around.”
It was horrible, an absolute circus, really, really bad.
The allegations have raised questions about how and why the unidentified man managed to insert himself into a supposedly secure event attended by scores of heads of state, including US President Barack Obama.
As world leaders took to the stage to pay homage to Mandela, the man, standing about a metre away, appeared to be interpreting for the deaf but “there was no meaning in what he used his hands for,” said Bruno Druchen, the Deaf Federation of South Africa’s national director.
When South African Deputy President Cyril Rampaphosa told the crowd that former South African President F W de Klerk was among the guests in a VIP section, the man at his side used a strange pushing motion unknown in sign language, added Ingrid Parkin, principal of the St Vincent School for the Deaf in Johannesburg.
The man also used virtually no facial expressions to convey the often emotional speeches, a must for sign language interpreters, Parkin said.
Collins Chabane, one of South Africa’s two presidency ministers, said the government was investigating “alleged incorrect use of sign language at the National Memorial Service” and would report publicly on the results.
Sign language experts said the man was not signing in South African or American sign languages, and could not have been signing in any other known sign language because there was no structure to his arm and hand movements.
Nicole Du Toit, an official sign language interpreter who watched the broadcast, called the man an embarrassment to South Africa.
“It was horrible, an absolute circus, really, really bad,” she said.
The man’s interpretive abilities also came under fire after an event last year attended by South African President Jacob Zuma, Druchen said.
At that appearance, a deaf person in the audience videotaped the event and gave it to the Deaf Federation of South Africa, which submitted a formal complaint to the governing African National Congress party, but the ANC never responded, Druchen said.
Of the latest allegations, ANC spokesman Jackson Mthembu said: “I don’t know this guy. He doesn’t work for the ANC. It was a government event. Ask them.”
In Washington, White House spokesman Josh Earnest said he was unaware of any security concerns related to the fake interpreter.
“It would be a shame if a distraction about an individual who was on stage in any way detracted from the importance of that event and the importance of President Mandela’s legacy,” Earnest said.
Organisations that accredit interpreters have been unable to identify the man, Loening said.
“It’s complete disrespect for the deaf community, and for what Nelson Mandela stood for and the support which he gave towards the deaf community,” she said.