Say what? 'Clown interpreter' invents own sign language at Mandela memorial



In these combination pictures taken on Dec. 10, 2013, US President Barack Obama delivers a speech next to a sign language interpreter during the memorial service for late South African President Nelson Mandela. South Africa's deaf community accused the interpreter of being a fake who had merely flapped his arms around during speeches.


Alexander Joe

Editor's note: Since this article was originally published, a man identifying himself as the much-mocked sign language interpreter has told South African media that he suffers from schizophrenia, and blamed his performance at Mandela's memorial service on a sudden onset of auditory and visual hallucinations.

"There was nothing I could do," Thamsanqa Jantjie — who says he works for an interpreting agency — told The Star newspaper on Dec. 12. "I was alone in a very dangerous situation. I tried to control myself and not show the world what was going on. I am very sorry, it's the situation I found myself in."  

JOHANNESBURG, South Africa — Was the sign language interpreter at Nelson Mandela's memorial service a fake?

He stood just a few feet from US President Barack Obama and other world leaders at the event in Soweto yesterday, ostensibly translating their poignant speeches into language for the deaf.

But in another awkward incident to emerge from Mandela's official memorial service, the South African government is facing accusations that the interpreter hired for the event was a fake who literally invented gibberish hand signals.

Bruno Peter Druchen, director of the Deaf Federation of South Africa, tweeted that the signer — who has yet to be publicly identified — was "making up the signs" and "causing embarrassment."

"Please get RID of this CLOWN interpreter, please!" he tweeted along with a photo of the man.

A video clip from the event shows the South African Broadcasting Corporation's own interpreter for the deaf making different hand gestures from the signer on stage at the Mandela memorial.

The Associated Press interviewed three sign language experts who said the man was not signing in South African or American sign languages.

The same man is said to have drawn complaints for his sign language "skills" at the African National Congress (ANC) party's leadership congress in Mangaung a year ago. The ANC confirmed that it had used the interpreter more than once in the past.

The South African government on Wednesday said it was investigating reports of "alleged incorrect use of sign language."

"(The) 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," Collins Chabane, minister for the presidency, told a press briefing.

Meanwhile a spoof Twitter account, @memorialsigner, was set up, comprised of random, nonsensical tweets — "translations" of the fake sign language.