Mandela memorial: Outcry over 'fake' sign interpreter

Media playback is unsupported on your device
Media captionDeaf viewers complained that the signs made by the interpreter made no sense, reports Will Ross

Deaf viewers of Nelson Mandela's memorial service have complained that the official sign language interpreter was a fraud who was "signing rubbish".

The Deaf Federation of South Africa told the BBC the man's signs were "arbitrary" and "did not make sense".

The man, who has not yet been publicly identified, was seen on stage signing as friends and family of Mr Mandela, and world leaders, paid tribute to the former South African president.

The government is investigating.

It said on Wednesday it had as yet been unable to get to the bottom of the allegations "due to the demanding schedule of organising events related to the State Funeral".

But, in a statement, the government said it "wishes to assure South Africans that we are clear in defending the rights and dignity of people with disabilities".

'Making a mockery'

Major national and international news channels broadcast Mr Mandela's state memorial service live on Tuesday.

The man, suited and wearing a pass around his neck, stood next to key speakers such as US President Barack Obama and Mr Mandela's grandchildren translating their eulogies.

During the broadcast, Wilma Newhoudt-Druchen, South Africa's first deaf female MP, tweeted: "ANC-linked interpreter on the stage with dep president of ANC is signing rubbish. He cannot sign. Please get him off."

She told the BBC the man was "employed by ANC head office or used by them" but didn't use South African sign language.

The ANC has refused to comment on whether it had used the interpreter at previous events.

Francois Deysal, who is a signing trainer at the Deaf Federation of South Africa, said the man was "not known to the deaf community or other interpreters in South Africa".

South African sign language has its own structure and is not linked to any spoken language like Afrikaans, Xhosa or English, Mr Deysal told the BBC's Newsday programme.

South African Braam Jordaan, the Young Deaf Leader for the World Federation of the Deaf, told the BBC the man was "creating his own signs".

He said deaf people had been excluded in South Africa long before apartheid happened.

There is one sign language interpreter for every 10,000 deaf people in South Africa, he said via an interpreter.

The BBC's See Hear researcher Erika Jones, also a sign language user, said the man's signing seemed to have no grammatical base and kept repeating sign patterns when it was clear that the speaker was not using repetitive words.

UK deaf news blog The Limping Chicken said the sign language interpreter had a "strange repetitive rhythm to his movements", and "the structure of his hand and body movements didn't seem to change no matter what the speaker was saying".

Blog editor Charlie Swinbourne said the man "made a mockery of our language".

If the accusations that the man was a "fake" turn out to be true, "on a day when the world saluted a man who fought oppression, a guy stood on stage and effectively oppressed another minority - deaf people", Mr Swinbourne wrote.