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 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, said Wednesday.
When South African Deputy President Cyril Rampaphosa told the crowd that 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, Parkin said.
Collins Chabane, one of South Africa’s two presidency ministers, said the government is investigating “alleged incorrect use of sign language at the National Memorial Service.” He did not identify the man, but said the “government will report publicly on any information it may establish.”
U.S. Secret Service spokesman Ed Donovan said 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,” Donovan added.
White House spokesman Josh Earnest added: “It’s a shame that … a service that was dedicated to honoring the life and celebrating the legacy of one of the great leaders of the 20th century has gotten distracted by this and a couple of other issues that are far less important than the legacy of Nelson Mandela.”
Four experts, including Druchen and Parkin, said 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, according to the federation.
“This man himself knows he cannot sign and he had the guts to stand on an international stage and do that,” Parkin said. “It’s absolutely impossible that he is any kind of interpreter. Or a language person at all, because he’s not even using a language there.”
Nicole Du Toit, a sign-language interpreter who also watched the broadcast, said in a telephone interview that the man was an embarrassment for South Africa.
“It was horrible, an absolute circus, really, really bad,” she said. “Only he can understand those gestures.”