Nelson Mandela memorial: Flap over ‘hand-flapping’ interpreter

If you happened to be watching the national memorial service for Nelson Mandela on Tuesday, chances are you saw a fake sign language interpreter onstage.


JOHANNESBURG, South Africa -- The official sign language interpreter at Nelson Mandela’s state memorial service on Tuesday didn’t even know the gestures for “South Africa” or “thank you,” according to representatives of organizations for deaf people.

The man, whose identity has not been made public, just seemed to make up random gestures that bore no relationship to sign language interpreting for deaf people, the critics said.

“It was like getting somebody off the street and telling them to flap their hands around,” Cara Loening, director of Cape Town-based Sign Language Education and Development, told the South African Press Assn.


“There was zero percent accuracy,” said Delphin Hlungwane, of DeafSA, an organization representing the deaf. “He couldn’t even get the basics right. He couldn’t even say thank you,” she told Reuters. “He just invented his signs as he went along.”

Government spokesman Collins Chabane said the government would investigate the issue after events commemorating former president Mandela were over.

Organizations representing deaf people reacted with indignation at the bizarre interpretation, saying it made a mockery of them.

“Get him off,” tweeted Wilma Newhoudt, deaf South African lawmaker, during the service.

The scandal was one of several glaring problems in South Africa’s organization of the Mandela memorial events and funeral. For one thing, there was a large number of empty seats in the stadium for the Mandela memorial; secondly, there were many complaints of inadequate or nonexistent security checks on public attendees at the memorial, despite there being more than 90 world leaders in one place.

There was also the embarrassing booing of South African President Jacob Zuma in front of global leaders, described Wednesday by Chabane as “the wrong thing” and “undesirable.” As well, there was the state-owned television network’s attempts to cover up the jeering of the president.


Other logistical problems, including President Obama’s limousine getting caught in traffic and the government admission Wednesday that too few buses were provided to shuttle mourners to the Union Buildings on Wednesday to view Mandela’s casket lying in state. Hundreds who queued for hours were turned away.

Former South African newspaper editor Nic Dawes dubbed it an “omni-shambles.”

Others said problems were inevitable when pulling together an event of such magnitude in just a few days.

The interpreter in question has been used before at ANC events. South African media reported Wednesday that complaints had been made to the ANC last year about his signing abilities.

Newhoudt said DeafSA complained in mid-2012 about the man’s interpretation of a speech by Zuma but never got a response.

“I don’t know this guy. He doesn’t work for the ANC. It was a government event. Ask them,” spokesman Jackson Mthembu said, according to Reuters.


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Twitter: @latimesdixon