QUNU, South Africa — He stood with a deadpan expression just inches from President Barack Obama and other world leaders speaking at Nelson Mandela’s memorial, dressed in a dark suit, with a blue security lanyard bearing the words “state funeral” draped around his neck, flapping his arms and gesticulating in what was supposed to be sign language for the deaf.
The man was a fraud, sign-language experts said Wednesday, expressing outrage that an impostor who was clearly illiterate in the linguistic skills of signing could have pulled off such a stunt. He was a constant presence on the stage of the memorial on Tuesday, watched not only by the audience in the 93,000-seat soccer stadium in Soweto but by hundreds of millions on television.
More than 24 hours later, the South African government was still at a loss to explain how the impostor, whose identity remained a mystery, had not only breached security checks but had even gotten the job.
“This ‘fake interpreter’ has made a mockery of South African sign language and has disgraced the South African sign language-interpreting profession,” said Bruno Druchen, the national director of DeafSA, a Johannesburg advocacy organization for the deaf.
In a statement posted on the organization’s Facebook page, Druchen said, “The deaf community is in outrage.”
The national embarrassment over the fraudulent interpreter was only one of a number of things that seemed to go wrong in the government’s organization and management of the memorial event, adding to the perception of sloppiness and haste in preparations following Mandela’s death last week. Many South Africans who had wanted to attend complained that public transportation had failed, with buses that never arrived.
The aftermath of Mandela’s death was also befouled by news reports on Wednesday that burglars had broken into the Cape Town home of another revered figure in South Africa’s anti-apartheid struggle, the Nobel peace prize laureate Desmond Tutu.
The burglary took place while he was attending the memorial service, according to the newspaper Cape Times.
Druchen’s statement punched many holes in the sign-language interpreter’s credibility.
He did not, for instance, use the established signs for Mandela or President Jacob Zuma. His hand shapes were meaningless. He failed to use facial expressions, head movement, shoulder-raising or other body language considered integral elements of signing.
“It is a total mockery of the language,” the statement said.