By ALAN CLENDENNING and RAY FAURE
JOHANNESBURG — As one world leader after another paid homage to Nelson Mandela at a memorial service, the man standing at arm’s length from them appeared to interpret their words in sign language. But advocates for the deaf say he was a faker.
The incident, which outraged deaf people and sign-language interpreters watching the service broadcast around the globe, raised questions of how the unidentified man managed to crash a supposedly secure event attended by scores of heads of state, including President Barack Obama.
It also was another example of the problems plaguing Tuesday’s memorial, including public transportation breakdowns that hindered mourners going to the soccer stadium and a faulty audio system that made the speeches inaudible for many. Police also failed to search the first wave of crowds who rushed into the stadium after the gates were opened just after dawn.
The man, who stood about a yard (one meter) from Obama and other leaders, “was moving his hands around, but there was no meaning in what he used his hands for,” Bruno Druchen, national director of the Deaf Federation of South Africa, told the Associated Press on Wednesday.
When South African Deputy President Cyril Rampaphosa told the crowd former South African President F.W. de Klerk was among the guests, the man at his side used a strange pushing motion unknown in sign language that did not identify de Klerk or say anything about his presence, said Ingrid Parkin, principal of the St. Vincent School for the Deaf in Johannesburg.
The closest the man’s gestures came to anything in sign language at that point might possibly be the words for “running horse,” “friend” or “beyond,” she said, but only by someone who signs terribly. The man also used virtually no facial expressions to convey the often-emotional speeches, an absolute must for sign-language interpreters.