A few days ago, when the story of the “fake interpreter” broke in the South African media, the ANC denied any knowledge of who he was and how he got to be on the podium, signing while world leader after world leader gave inane speeches intended to tell the world that “Yes, I more than anyone, I was close to Madiba; we had dinner together once, and he paid special attention to me. Furthermore, his saintliness is the reason why I, too, should be close to the same beatification treatment.” (Yes, Drone President, I’m looking at you.) That would have been a tough job for any veteran of sign language, who must not only convey the words, but also the emotional impact and context through a mixture of physical movements and psychological engagement with both speaker and audience. It is translation—and like translation between any two languages, it has all the attendant complexities of signs never adequately meeting the requirements of the signifier—but with an added layer of physicality essential to convey the speaker’s intended tone.
In a recent episode of his CNN “Parts Unknown,” the American chef and writer Anthony Bourdain traveled to South Africa. In my mind at least, this episode was long overdue and in fact, I’ve even said so on this blog in the past. The episode focuses on Gauteng Province (Johannesburg and Pretoria), signaling to a desire on the producers’ part to focus on emerging and predominantly urban black South African sensibilities and avoiding the pre-packaged, proto-European sensibilities and more superficially palatable aesthetics of Cape Town and the Western Cape altogether. The result is at once an imperfect and incomplete, yet compelling glimpse into one of the most complicated and confusing places in the world.