The key address in the memorial service for Nelson Mandela was given by Barack Obama, whose words were brought to life for deaf spectators and TV viewers by a “sign language interpreter”, who could be seen gesturing energetically behind the sombre US President.
Yet the man, not only seen by the tens of thousands in Johannesburg’s FNB stadium where the memorial took place on Tuesday, but also by millions across the world on television, was a “fake”, according to Bruno Druchen, the national director of the Deaf Federation of South Africa.
Mr Duchen told the Associated Press “there was no meaning in what he used his hands for”. He and other language experts pointed out that 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. South African sign language covers all of the country’s 11 official languages.
Amjad Shaikh, a supporter of the ruling ANC party who studied sign language as a boy, said he tried to contact the organisers of the memorial after seeing the man on television. “What this man was doing was making no sense,” he said.
Mr Sheikh said at first he thought the man may have been using “a foreign system” of sign language that he did not understand, but having asked around, he discovered “no one knew anything about it”.
The Action on Hearing Loss group complained that as a result of what happened, “deaf or hard-of-hearing people across the world were completely excluded from one of the biggest events in recent history”.