Is South Africa’s ‘fake’ sign language interpreter a legacy of apartheid?

December 11, 2013

Sign language experts have accused the interpreter (right) at Nelson Mandela's memorial service of pretending to sign. (Youtube)

Sign language interpreters and deaf advocates have accused the interpreter at Nelson Mandela’s memorial service of being a “fake” -- an egregious mistake if true, but also a glimpse into another, lesser-seen consequence of apartheid.

The interpreter, who still hasn’t yet been identified, made few facial expressions during Mandela’s service and appeared to gesture more or less at random. Facial expressions can be a key part of signing speeches, since they convey emotion that hand signals do not. And four sign language experts told the Associated Press that the man’s hand movements were “gibberish,” part of neither American nor South African sign language.

That’s a huge embarrassment for South Africa -- particularly considering the country’s racially charged history with signing. As late as the 1980s, South Africa employed different sign languages for whites and blacks, making it next to impossible for deaf blacks to get jobs or educations.

Apartheid-era disenfranchisement was also worse for people with disabilities. The Rev. Cyril Axelrod, a Catholic priest who lobbied for change in the deaf community and was profiled by the Post in 1982, once came upon a group of 170 black deaf children, some as old as 15, who couldn’t read, write or sign as a result of discriminatory education policies.

Since the mid-1990s, South Africa has adopted one sign language, SASL, and a set of educational policies that encourage it to be taught in schools. But interestingly, the new language is still in the process of being codified, which means there’s no single, standard form -- and according to the Deaf Federation of South Africa, not all language schools there use it. In fact, in 2008 there were only six professional, accredited SASL interpreters in the entire country, a situation that University of Cape Town researcher Marion Heap, writing in the Cape Times, called an “urgent” public health risk.

Of course, none of this makes the interpreter at Mandela’s memorial any less offensive, if he was indeed just pretending to sign. But it’s probably safe to say that South Africa’s relationship with its deaf community is historically complex -- much more complex than the “fake interpreter!” headlines would make it appear.

Caitlin Dewey runs The Intersect blog, writing about digital and Internet culture. Before joining the Post, she was an associate online editor at Kiplinger’s Personal Finance.
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Max Fisher · December 11, 2013