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The Deaf Federation of South Africa says the fake interpreter appeared to have invented his own signs. (STEPHEN CROWLEY/NYT)
The Deaf Federation of South Africa says the fake interpreter appeared to have invented his own signs. (STEPHEN CROWLEY/NYT)

Geoffrey York

Fake interpreter at Mandela memorial embarrasses South African authorities Add to ...

It’s the biggest mystery in a week of Nelson Mandela tributes: Why was a strange young man standing next to every global leader at the Mandela memorial, pretending to be a sign-language interpreter?

It’s not just a bizarre scandal – it may have also been a security breach, since he stood beside a host of world leaders such as U.S. President Barack Obama during the entire memorial on Tuesday. But regardless of his identity, the fake interpreter has emerged as a massive embarrassment, and the South African government is promising an investigation.

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Hours after the controversy erupted on Wednesday, the South African government admitted that it didn’t know what happened – even though the fake interpreter was wearing an official accreditation badge and should have been known to the authorities.

Deaf groups in South Africa and elsewhere are expressing outrage at the fake interpreter. They say he was a “fraud” who was randomly flapping his arms around, making no recognizable words in any language. It was an insult to the deaf community, leaving deaf people excluded from the Mandela memorial, activists said.

Analysts who looked at video clips of the interpreter’s performance said that he was communicating gibberish and couldn’t even translate basic words such as “thank you” or “South Africa” or “Nelson Mandela.”

It emerged that the same man had been interpreting for high-level speeches and conferences of the ruling African National Congress last year, and had provoked many complaints and official objections from deaf groups at the time – which were apparently ignored.

The South African government finally responded to the complaints on Wednesday. “Government has noted the concern expressed in various quarters,” a spokesman told an official briefing. “Government is looking into this matter but has not been able to conclude this inquiry due to the demanding schedule of organizing events related to the state funeral.”

U.S. Secret Service spokesman Ed Donovan said in response to an e-mailed question by The Associated Press that “agreed-upon security measures between the U.S. Secret Service and South African government security officials were in place” during the service.

“Program items such as stage participants or sign-language interpreters were the responsibility of the host organizing committee,” Mr. Donovan added.

South African deaf activists said the young man is not a recognized professional interpreter in the country. “He is not known by the deaf community in South Africa nor by the South African Sign Language interpreters working in the field,” said a statement by the Deaf Federation of South Africa.

“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,” it said.

The federation noted that the young man was not using any facial expressions to help convey words – an essential part of any sign language. Instead he seemed to have invented his own signs that were completely unrecognized by deaf people. “It is a total mockery of the language,” the federation said.

Wilma Newhoudt-Druchen, vice-chair of the deaf federation and a member of the South African Parliament, was one of the first to notice the interpreter was fake. “He is causing international embarrassment,” she tweeted as she watched the Mandela memorial on television. “What is he signing? He knows that the deaf cannot vocally boo him off. Shame on him! He’s just making up. Get him out of TV sight.”

She said the federation had filed an official complaint about the same man last year when he was the “interpreter” for a speech by President Jacob Zuma, but the party made no response. “When a deaf person complains, nobody listens,” she told City Press, a South African weekly newspaper.

François Deysel, a professional sign-language interpreter, tweeted that the young man should have been removed from the stage, since none of his signs made sense. “He is moving his arms to try to look busy,” Mr. Deysel wrote.

With a report from Associated Press

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