A week of mourning as heard via my CI

I was in Cape Town when Nelson Mandela died.

On Friday morning, when I woke up, Tom pointed at the Radio – the World service was on.  Nelson Mandela was dead. I scrambled to put in my CI.

I listened to the BBC and then local and national stations in SA using my ComPilot and an aux cable.  It seemed too unbearably sad, and even sometimes a little annoying (because I was looking for information about events but so many people were vox popping about how they’d met him once and…). I wasn’t taking in what people were saying anyway.

I had arranged to meet a friend for lunch.  On the way there, I went into a shop – the people there were smiley and acting normal, as though no one had died – and then I walked through the central park (The Company’s Gardens).

I looked at everyone I passed, searching them for signs of Madiba grief. A tiny handful of people were laying flowers on a gate at the back of parliament, where there was a new photo of Madiba tied to the railings. They took photos of themselves next to the flowers. I took a photo of the flowers and Hamba Kahle Madiba photo, and felt like an idiot.

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People passed and sometimes took photos but otherwise seemed unmoved. My lunch friend also found this total lack of Princess Diana-style public grief quite disquieting and disappointing. Central Cape Town was operating on a strictly business as usual basis. People were smiling. The world had not stopped. I wondered what BBC TV news was saying. They probably knew more than I did.

On the Sunday I met with another friend, Pharie, from a Cape Town township (or location as she calls it – an apartheid era word). “People get the bus and train to work from the location and they are all singing Mandela songs”, she told me. She’d passed by a stadium near home, and heard singing but had not gone in because she didn’t feel ready and for her, Madiba had died months earlier. She was trying to get to Qunu on the other side of SA, but all transport was fully booked, so she would go and join her brother in Johannesburg the next weekend, where she said the atmosphere was more manifestly affected. She said Johannesburg became a bit chaotic when the news broke.  Cape Town is a conservative place but Johannesburg is different.

I was getting messages from UK friends and relations telling me it must be amazing being here at a time of historical importance but at first, I was mainly participating in a widespread, quietly disappointed feeling that something wasn’t actually happening. Because in the first few days after Madiba’s death, it wasn’t that easy for all of us to achieve a communal grief ‘moment’ – an urge that seems to be a compelling but maybe irrational instinct sometimes.

SA Parliament had a special session in Cape Town on the Monday however, and things picked up a bit from then on.

I managed to team up with a stranger called Ricardo outside parliament who gave me a spare ticket to the public gallery. It felt like quite an achievement to me. I can now hear people’s accents well in South Africa. When I came here before, I could not hear them – although though I could tell some of them sounded slightly Australian (which is the Cape Town anglicised accent although there are diverse accents here).

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I love hearing people’s different accents here and and once I get used to them suddenly all is clear. I’ve been to a Xhosa class and listened to a ‘learn isiXhosa’ CD which helps me understand some of the grammar people use in South Africa, as well as the rolling R’s.

The guy who helped get me into parliament had a pretty mild Cape Town accent. I sat up in the gallery, in a separate chamber from the politicians. The sound system was not brilliant but I could follow two of the speakers perfectly (they had soft Cape Town accents) and bits of some of the other speakers. All 20 speeches were sign language interpreted very well too, on the big screens, next to the speakers.

At the start of the session we stood for the multilingual national anthem. I watched the interpreters. At the end the man next to me (he was called Neville, I tell you his name as it is significant because it means I heard his name when he told me – a basic listening skill I did not have pre-implant) – at the end of the national anthem Neville bellowed MADEEEBA from the gallery and the audience laughed at him. He later fell asleep during the speeches.

It felt good to go to parliament on my own and be able to take part in something with strangers. I was very excited at being there. I was heartened and impressed that the event was interpreted by interpreters that I recognised from TV news. I know enough South African sign language (SASL) to understand some of what was signed. Some SASL is similar to BSL and the fingerspelling is similar to ASL.

When focussing on listening though, I missed some of the jokes in the speeches (but heard the audience laughing and clapping) and felt disappointed. But later in the week I was able to follow speeches over an outdoor PA in a city square, without lipreading, so it is possible the sound system in parliament was just not that good. I often find that if I can’t follow sound from a speaker, a hearing person will tell me – it was poor quality.

One thing I learnt was just how many different political parties exist in SA. Representatives  from the many parties said their bit. After the 20 speeches, one of the speakers led singing and dancing outside parliament. They sang about three or four different struggle songs. It sounded very good and not for the first time this week, I felt very moved, but unable to tell whether my emotions were about being able to hear well in previously difficult hearing environments, or about the content of what I was hearing.

I think in the end I was emotional about being able to hear and therefore to be with a large group of people in a city and share what they were sharing and experience the soaring, uplifting, powerful singing that for many there was a powerful re-enactment of songs from their political past. A coming together once again. I wasn’t confused and unknowing (apart from not knowing any of the songs – yet), I wasn’t bored. The whole three hours I spent at parliament I found completely riveting.

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Every night since Mandela died, Table Mountain was lit up, with his name emblazoned across the ascent. ‘Madiba’ lit up large, in twinkly white lights – as if to say, uTata, he is bigger than Christmas.

The Tuesday was the heads of state memorial service in Soweto, which is a long way from Cape Town. I watched the start on Sky TV in a café, got bored and left. My Cape Town friend Pharie and my mum supplied me with running text message commentaries. I went to another café and watch Obama and Zuma’s speech. South African TV had an interpreter in a large box on one side of the screen.

What South African deaf people saw of the memorial on TV was a little different to what the rest of the world saw that day. I noticed the fake interpreter but didn’t even register that he was supposed to be a sign language interpreter. He wasn’t using any sign language.I thought – what the hell is that guy doing? It looks a bit strange. Maybe it’s some odd hearing person sign thing, because sometimes hearing people have their own signs.

For example, in the stadium, according to my British sources, the crowd was derisively making the football substitute sign at Zuma a well as booing. And the day before a city worker I’d chatted to about all the extra staff on duty in the streets had done the very commonly used hearing South African sign meaning busy, full, jammed, chocablock. Oh well then, I thought, hearing people need their own signs too.

The irrational way I reacted to the oddness on the podium at the Soweto stadium is exactly what impostors rely on, they rely on the way people do not want to believe the worst. That they don’t pay too much attention, that they explain things away.

I also momentarily thought maybe he’s a  person who has tricked his way onto stage and will soon be dragged off, as someone must surely clock that he was spoiling the slickness a bit up there.

It never crossed my mind that someone whose job it was to provide stadium access, had booked a real imposter interpreter, a charlatan, because he was the usual ANC go-to man for interpreting freedom fighter funerals and centenaries (the guy also crops up on a 2012 youtube video of Zuma singing ‘kill the boers’ at the ANC centenary).

Reading up on him afterwards I learnt that this guy’s CV boasted he’d done Ma Sisulu’s funeral in 2012 (after which deaf people had complained to no avail). The agency he worked for is also reported to charge only £50 per day, a pittance compared to the £80 PER HOUR a real interpreter charges in South Africa (meaning they’re beyond the means of most Deaf people here, even if there were enough of them to go round).

This imposter was doing something very strange, but didn’t provide me with useful information, and so I ignored him. It wasn’t hard to ignore him because the TV footage mainly excluded the fake from shot as there was only room for the speakers and the real, onscreen interpreter.

I listened to the radio live feed on my compilot whilst watching the café TV. The waiters clapped Obama and ignored Zuma. Zuma was booed by the stadium but SABC TV censored this and the commentators avoided commenting on it. But luckily UK friends and Pharie told me about the booing of Zuma.  I couldn’t hear booing, just a lot of stadium type messy noise, and SABC didn’t show the crowds of people walking out on Zuma.

I also later learnt that different political groups were trying to outsing each other in the stadium which is why they were being told off by Cyril Ramaphosa for indiscipline.

After the memorial I had to work and then go to a party in Sea Point. I didn’t give another thought to the fake interpreter. I forgot all about the unexplained weirdness at this otherwise quite boring memorial. One of the perks of my new hearing is that I am liberated from spending hours, days, even weeks or months worrying about interpreter and other access problems or mistakes. I focus on getting positive results and information with my hearing and enjoying being able to hear language, English and other languages.

The next day I went to Cape Town stadium to try and get into the big Madiba concert. People had spare free tickets so I managed to get some for me and three friends. It was another beautiful sunny hot day in Cape Town. I walked along the fanwalk to the stadium instead of taking my car.

I was so excited to be going to my first stadium concert since going hearing again. The atmosphere was thrilling as the stadium filled with people. I was expecting a lot, and when the first choir came on it sounded quite beautiful. A little beautiful to be honest. But not brilliant. Not as good as the singing in front of parliament. Then a band came on, I don’t know who, and they sounded…bad.

My CI doesn’t like stadium noise. I guess it’s a tough one. It was also hard to understand my friends sometimes. But again, as in parliament, as on the TV, this big event was interpreted. Everytime someone made a speech at the stadium, an interpreter stood next to them and was shown on the big screens. They signed clearly so that even I could follow, although I’m not fluent in SASL.

We decided to leave our seats inside the arena and join a growing crowd of people singing and dancing a Mandela song. The crowd snaked round the edge of the arena.I was with one of my friends Yolanda and her uncle (name still unheard properly although I did ask him “Uxolo, ungubani kanene?” Remind me what is your name?),.

Sometimes people in the crowd made contact in a dancey way – knocking me on my back to the rhythm of the song or grabbing my hand and talking to me and although we struggled to hear each other in the echoey racket of the stadium they knew what I was saying when I shouted Ndiyavuya Ukukwazi! (I am happy to know you).


We changed seats to a different part of the arena where we could hear the music better. It was amazing to hear Ladismith Black Mambazo again. I used to have their tape. But I have to be honest and say they sounded a bit rubbish as well, as the amazing feeling of being able to watch them dancing a bit like Irish dancers (stiff bodies, legs kicking out), and then some of the audience including little kids try to copy them. I could only hear one of their singers well. But apart from frustration that the sound quality was not as perfect as it has been on my ipod, at parties and at a nightclub – I had a truly wonderful time at the stadium.  It was properly cheesily rainbow nation, a lovely warm flag waving Mandela photo placards wielding feeling in a huge building that opened out into the beautiful sky next to the magnificent Table Mountain and setting sun. I didn’t have a flag or a picture but I loved seeing them en masse in the stadium. And everyone looked so happy.

My three friends and I left the stadium and were caught up in a crowd as we surged onto the shuttle bus back into the centre of town. As people boarded they joined in with the singing of a Mandela song (which I recorded). The song went in rounds and there was stomping and clapping so much that the whole bus bounced. It sounded bloody fantastic. People on other buses stared at our bus as they went past, because the whole bendy bus was singing this song and it was very loud. All sung apart from me and a couple who didn’t know the words either.

My friends showed me to a cab rank, after a confusing conversation where I told them I was getting a taxi (which means a ‘minibus to the township’ here)  and I went home, leaving them to catch a taxi (minibus) to their locations (Khayelitsha and Bela).

I spoke with the taxi driver easily. I sat in the back and chatted without lipreading. He talked proudly about Mandela and asked about the stadium concert. At last! Everyone in Cape Town was talking and sharing their Madiba stuff, in the way I suppose must have expected and hoped for a few days earlier. I just had to get stuck in and avoid the wealthy, commercial outlets of central Cape Town.

It was late when I got home. I turned on my laptop to find a lot of messages from UK about a fake interpreter. I briefly read one of the blogs and saw the photo and thought. Oh…NO. No, no no. It was a snowballing twitter then news storm with deaf access at the centre of an event of world note.

In general, access and education for deaf people in South Africa is poor. Many of the advancements made in UK or USA for deaf people have not happened here yet. It is a country still recovering from trauma, still under construction.

However in some ways SA is more progressive than UK. The constitution is progressive. And throughout the national week of mourning they provided qualified interpreters as a matter of course. It found it quite stunning and very inclusive.

On the same day that the fake interpreter embarrassed South Africa in front of the world, BBC axed the interpreter because they wanted to screen the memorial without her. It’s not the first time. The BBC always axes the interpreter at state funerals.

The furore quickly became annoying. Not least because I had spent the week thinking, blimey they are really good at rolling out the decent interpreters when it counts here. I was so impressed. And the fake interpreter fiasco was jumped on to such an extent and in such a way, especially by an internet dwelling section in the British Deaf Community, that it revealed another side to western news an opinion about Africa and also mental illness. I was sad for South Africa. I felt proud of it this week, but the cock up had played into western  suspicions about SA being a dangerous, untrustworthy banana republic run by black people who aren’t as good as Mandela.

Hopefully the deaf organisations here will be able to use the scandal to work with the government to achieve better regulation.

On Saturday I went with two friends to a candle night vigil by the town hall at Grand Parade. They weren’t sure it would be much good when I invited them but they were soon won over by the music and atmosphere.

There were big posters of a laughing Madiba, with an area set up in front of the stage for people to sign the condolence books. Bands played – and this time I could hear them very well. The first group was a Cape Malay choir from the Bo Kaap District. They wore Fez hats and 1950s stripey blazors with white gloves. Their first song was about the bulldozed District Six. The act seemed quite genteel and camp, and someone told me one of their songs was about a transvestite.  The Cape Malay choir music was sort of tinny euro beats at alternating speeds and the singing was 1950s style choir in English and Afrikaans.

As this group sung they suddenly had competition. From the direction of the station, a big crowd of young women (born-free generation) moved across the square and stood behind the audience singing and dancing a Madiba song. It sounded lovely. No one did anything, everyone carried on. The security people laughed a bit. After a while the girls moved off to their next port of call.

In between the bands the MC walked along the audience with a microphone so that people could say a few thoughts about Mandela. Incredibly I could follow everything people said onstage and in the audience, and the MC.

I often had a lump in my throat as the audience said what Mandela meant to them and to their country (not everyone was from SA). Again I wasn’t sure if I felt emotional because I could understand them or because of what they were saying. I found a couple of the people’s comments a bit mawkish or narcissistic, but one woman told a simple, powerful story about herself. “I grew up on a farm in the Eastern Cape, and as you know, life on these farms was….it was poor [her hesitation as she searched for the word made it clear she was making an understatement and cutting a long horrible story very short]. And when I was a little girl I used to think, I wish there was someone who could come and help us and change things and make our life better than this.  And then Mandela changed everything for us. He did what I wished for as a girl on the farm…he made it come true”. Of course, the coda to a lot of what people said was always, of course we have a long way to go yet. But we he liberated us all.

Even the most hardened cynic could not fail to be moved by some of the messages in amongst the teddies and flowers and Mandela artwork and photos lining the railings in front of the stage. It seems inconceivable that until very recently black and white people weren’t allowed to be friends. That there was so much violence on these streets. That the freakishly anachronistic segregation of apartheid is such a recent memory for many people here. Cape Town just seems so…nice.

It is amazing to be able to hear everyone last night. And I could hear them, so well, often perfectly, even though a few weeks ago I broke the main microphone on my cochlear implant. So I have been using the programs that can function using the other two mics on the processor. And it’s been fine, although I have been enjoying slightly less ‘incidental hearing’ as a result. The replacement t-mic arrives in Cape Town tomorrow.

This morning I watched the SABC live footage of the funeral in Qunu – which was fully interpreted by real terps all the way through.  I used my complot to feed the audio direct from my laptop into my brain. It’s a great gadget and means that I could follow all of the speeches (except the Zambian ex president for some reason) perfectly. Often the speakers would change from English to isiXhosa, with the sign ‘terps seamlessly continuing in SASL. I watched them a little but I could also understand some of the isiXhosa words myself, from my beginner lessons.

As Madiba’s coffin was born towards the graveside, I could hear the out of shot military brass band. The parps of the trumpets sounded just right. But kind of I wished I was hearing some of the singers from the bus as well.

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