JOHANNESBURG — As one world leader after another paid homage to Nelson Mandela at a memorial service Tuesday, the man standing at arm's length from them appeared to interpret their words in sign language. But advocates for the deaf say he was a faker.
The situation, which outraged deaf people and sign-language interpreters watching the service broadcast around the globe, raised questions of how the man — he still had not been identified Wednesday — managed to crash a supposedly secure event.
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 President Barack 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, told the Associated Press.
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" but has not finished because it has been overwhelmed with organizing the public viewing of Mandela's body in Pretoria and his funeral Sunday in his hometown of Qunu.
U.S. Secret Service spokesman Ed Donovan said in response to an emailed question by the AP that "agreed-upon security measures between the U.S. Secret Service and South African government security officials were in place" during the service.
Four experts, including Druchen and Parkin, told the AP 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.
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."