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Mandela Event Sign Language Translator Accused of Being Fake

Mandela Memorial Service
U.S. President Barack Obama, left, delivers a speech next to a sign language interpreter during the memorial service for late South African President Nelson Mandela in Johannesburg, on December 10, 2013. Photographer: Alexander Joe/AFP via Getty Images

An interpreter used to communicate with hearing-impaired people at a memorial service held for Nelson Mandela yesterday was a “fake,” according to the Deaf Federation of South Africa.

“Handshapes used were meaningless,” the group said in a statement today. “The interpreter did not use the established, recognized signs for President Mandela, President Zuma, President Thabo Mbeki and South Africa amongst many others.”

Thousands of South Africans gathered in the rain yesterday at the country’s biggest stadium to mark the life of Mandela, South Africa’s first black-president, who died at his home in Johannesburg on Dec. 5 at the age of 95. Speakers included South African President Jacob Zuma and U.S. President Barack Obama.

“This ‘fake interpreter’ has made a mockery of South African sign language and has disgraced the South African sign language interpreting profession,” the Deaf Federation said.

The government is looking into the matter, Collins Chabane, a minister in the presidency, told reporters in Pretoria.

The “government will report publicly on any information it may establish, but wishes to ensure South Africans that we are clear in defending the rights and dignity of people with disabilities,” he said.

The U.K.-based charity Action on Hearing Loss joined in the criticism.

“We are shocked by the quality of sign language interpretation” at the memorial service, Paul Breckell, its chief executive, said in an e-mailed statement. “Deaf or hard of hearing people across the world were completely excluded from one of the biggest events in recent history.”

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