Of sign language, selfies and Siderov

There is no embarrassment in admitting that late last Thursday night, after the death of Nelson Mandela was announced, I wept helplessly – something shared with many South Africans and people around the globe.

The tears returned, unbidden as they do in the hours after a bereavement, at intervals throughout the following day.

It was thus that I approached watching the December 10 memorial service with trepidation, fearful of the emotional impact it might have. Living far away from South Africa, the country of my birth, means an inability to share the grieving – and the exultation of joy at Mandela’s life – in the company of compatriots with a profoundly visceral connection to the father of our nation (which is not to imply that foreigners ‘cannot understand’ – the presence of so many high-ranking guests in the stadium, representing so many millions not only formally but emotionally, confirmed once more the global universality of Mandela).

At the remove of television, the four hours of proceedings, while on principle compelling viewing, also were hardly fully engaging. It has been pointed out elsewhere that at an event such as that, the absence of a video tribute to Mandela was a striking omission.

Not only the skies were leaden; so were most of the speeches. It is understandable that there was an idea for the world, or at least a handful of its representatives, to be given a chance to say a few words about the meaning to them of Mandela, but it was overdone. The exception, of course, was Barack Obama. He soared; Jacob Zuma bored. But then, the current South African president was not alone in that.

It was hardly surprising that the crowd, rain-drenched and cold, became fretful. Honouring Mandela through song and dance, and that by ordinary people, makes the most sense of all. Apart from his tectonic political role, a symbolic human connection was in that Mandela shuffle we all got to know so well. And, as the debate rages over whether or not the booing of Zuma was out of place (as an aside, may we without waiting for December 31, immediately hand the headline of the year award to local newspaper The Times for “Rain-boo Nation”?), so do the stories about the sideshow stories that have become mainstream.

First, the sign language chap, now identified in local media reports as Thamsanqa Jantjies, who is getting as much coverage as any VIP who was present. The gentlest epithet about his performance, with that word used advisedly, is “gibberish”, as international and South African experts on sign language are lined up to condemn his renditions of the rhetoric. People with hearing impairment, in South Africa and abroad, are understandably deeply offended at the disservice done them.

Will the guilty person – not Jantjies but whoever appointed him – be named? Because in bereavement, tears are no embarrassment, but making a memorial service incomprehensible to many people watching it certainly is. If anything was not appropriate for a Mandela memorial, a laughing stock must lead the field.

Next to the sign language scandal, the selfie moment with Obama and the prime ministers of Denmark and the UK is hardly worth mentioning. Like it or not, the selfie has become ubiquitous, an inevitable part of “Being There” at any event, even a memorial service, apparently. Is a selfie moment, when real South Africans were joining in song and dance in exuberance for the hero they were celebrating, really that awful? Even in South Africa, some cultures take photographs at family funerals as a memento (not grinning broadly, though), while others in the country find the idea somewhere between abhorrent and macabre.

By the by, any country that failed to send a head of state or government or both to the Mandela memorial made a serious mistake, on a purely Machiavellian level – leaving aside the matter of paying due respect to the memory of the great man. The hastily-arranged gathering of leaders was clearly the ultimate in networking opportunities, as apart from those honoured with a speaking part on the podium, they had four hours of face time in the VIP seats. There was much more than just the Obama-Castro handshake going on, and much more than that selfie. In that stadium, Bulgaria scored an own goal by sending a mere deputy minister. I was hoping for the head of state.

Foreign concepts

Speaking of photographs going viral, here in Bulgaria the embarrassment that was not national but merely political was the strange saga of the trip by Volen Siderov and some of his ultra-nationalist Ataka cohorts to Cuba. First appearing on a minor website, a picture of Siderov striding along a Cuban beach soon became Facebook fodder, and swiftly the stuff of television talk shows.

Locally, the Siderov in Cuba story has been as bizarre as the story of the signer using (non-existent) “Zulu sign language”. For the ultra-nationalist’s critics, the fact that Ataka MPs were indulging in island style, reportedly while in chilly Sofia Parliament was voting on Budget 2014 was too rich to resist.

The Ataka party’s damage control, in turn, became as bizarre as South African government attempts to spin away the booing of Zuma.

Not only was there a denial that Siderov had gone to the beach in Cuba (Ataka’s Ilian Todorov said that the photo had been taken at Sozopol on the Black Sea) but the party’s Denitsa Gadzheva apparently decided, in an emotional state, that the best form of defence was attack, so to speak.

What was not pictured was Siderov at meetings in the Cuban parliament, and meeting important Cuban officials, she said. Todorov added to the hilarity by saying that the Cuba trip was part of a global tour of “non-colonial” states.

In contrast to the Bulgarian media focusing only on “colonial” countries such as the US and Israel, in the words of Todorov, Ataka as an “anti-colonial” party had embarked on visits to non-colonial ones: China, Russia, Venezuela and Syria.

Todorov went on the offensive – in more than one sense of that word – when questioned by Genka Shikerova of bTV.

Asked where they were researching colonialism and the lack of it apart from in Havana, Todorov replied: “And what television do you work for, to put such questions? American, Jewish, Turkish? Should I call you Zuckerberg?” said Todorov, who later in the same interview again addressed Shikerova as “Miss Zuckerberg”.

Embarassment is, of course, a concept apparently foreign to Ataka, which in any case generally seems to have a distaste for the foreign – even though we now know that there are exceptions, among those “non-colonial states” listed above. Their unique perspective on reality has even permitted Siderov, at one point in 2013, to liken himself to Mandela.

The only, and rather tenuous connection, that may be made is in the sayings of Siderov and his hench people, and the unique signing in that stadium this week – both gibberish, and both, at very least, embarrassing.




Clive Leviev-Sawyer

Clive Leviev-Sawyer is the Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of The Sofia Globe. He is the author of the book Bulgaria: Politics and Protests in the 21st Century (Riva Publishers, 2015), and co-author of the book Bulgarian Jews: Living History (The Organization of the Jews in Bulgaria 'Shalom', 2018). He is also the author of Power: A Political Novel, available via amazon.com, and, on the lighter side, Whiskers And Other Short Tales of Cats (2021), also available via Amazon. He has translated books and numerous texts from Bulgarian into English.