To those outside the deaf community, the sign language interpreter for Nelson Mandela’s memorial may have looked like he was working hard, translating the spoken words into gestures for four hours.
But he has been dubbed “a fake,” and his actions outraged deaf people, according to an association for the deaf community in South Africa.
The service to commemorate the revered statesman, who died last week at the age of 95, was broadcast to millions of viewers around the world.
While dignitaries addressed the crowd Tuesday at Johannesburg’s FNB stadium, the unidentified suited man with a security pass produced a series of hand signals that experts say meant nothing.
The Deaf Federation of South Africa (DeafSA) said the “interpreter” was not a recognized professional, nor was he known by the deaf community in the country.
“The so-called ‘interpreter’ who interpreted at the official memorial service for late former president Nelson Mandela at FNB stadium has been dubbed the ‘fake interpreter’ and the deaf community is in outrage,” Bruno Druchen, national director of DeafSA, said in a statement.
“He is not known by the Deaf Community in South Africa nor by the South African Sign Language interpreters working in the field.”
The man did not use facial expressions, which in South African sign language are an important part of communication, and the hand signals he used were meaningless, Druchen said.
“The signs (self-invented signs) the interpreter used are not used in South African Sign Language and it is a total mockery of the language,” he said.
During the man’s appearance on Tuesday, Wilma Newhoudt, a deaf member of the South African Parliament and Vice President of the World Federation of the Deaf, tweeted: “ANC-linked interpreter on the stage with dep president of ANC is signing rubbish. He cannot sign. Please get him off.”
South African sign language interpreter Francois Deysel tweeted: ‘Please can someone ask the interpreter to step down from stage, it is embarrassing and making a mockery of our profession.”
Government says investigating reports
DeafSA said the man also did not use the established, recognized signs for the names of Mandela, South African President Jacob Zuma and his predecessor, Thabo Mbeki, among others.
“This proves that he is not involved in the deaf community and doesn’t know South African Sign Language,” it said.
“To the best of our knowledge, he has not undergone any formal training in South African Sign Language or Interpreting offered by any recognized institution which offers these training courses.”
As outrage over his interpretation skills mounted, mystery over his identity and employment also grew.
A spokesman for the ruling African National Congress said the party did not employ him for the event.
“We have used him on some occasions but yesterday was not an ANC event so we cannot answer for yesterday,” spokesman Jackson Mthembu said. The ANC has not named the interpreter.
The South African government was investigating reports about the poor sign-language interpretation at the memorial, Minister in the Presidency Collins Chabane said.
Earlier, government spokeswoman Phumla Williams told CNN she could not immediately comment on the allegations.
“I am still trying to get the feedback from the people who hired him. I am not in a position to respond,” she said.
“Once I have that information I will respond.”
World leaders from President Barack Obama to Cuba’s Raul Castro joined celebrities, religious figures and tens of thousands of ordinary South Africans to pay tribute to Mandela at the Tuesday service.