With the Madiba memorial fake sign language fiasco still fresh in our memories, People’s Assembly was struck by the rapport and fluidity with which South Africa’s first and only deaf MP, Wilma Newhoudt-Druchen, and her interpreters communicated complex and technical political terms in a recent Communications Portfolio Committee meeting.
During Nelson Mandela’s memorial, Newhoudt-Druchen was the one that alerted the public to the fake signing when she tweeted: "ANC-linked interpreter on the stage with dep president of ANC is signing rubbish. He cannot sign. Please get him off.”
With the spotlight on this sensitive matter, People’s Assembly had a discussion with her (via her interpreter Ronel Davids) about how she manages in Parliament. We also spoke to her about her views on how sign language should be done in a way that is sensitive to the deaf community. As well as having sat on their Joint Monitoring Committee for Women, Children and Disabled Persons alongside other disabled MPs such as partially sighted Louis Nzimande, Newhoudt-Druchen was particularly drawn to the Communications PC because “it does oversight on SABC and my goal was to lobby for access to deaf people on TV because obviously we cannot hear radio, so the best means of information is via the TV”.
There are approximately four million deaf, hard of hearing and elderly deaf people living in South Africa, 600 000 of which rely on sign language to communicate. “So I have lobbied to have more sign language and subtitling [on our screens] and I got that right as we have seen a lot more subtitles on TV since 1999.” says Newhoudt-Druchen.
She added that “in the Communications Portfolio right now I’m continuing with lobbying, not just for better access to TV for the deaf but telecommunications and the cost to communicate. As we need data and rely on SMS, BBM and Whatsapp, it is important that we look at how the cost can be brought down.”
Newhoudt-Druchen joined Parliament in 1994 where she realised “I couldn’t sit alone with 399 other Members, with many of them sitting too far away to even lip-read”, so she requested Parliament hire sign language interpreters to assist her.
The first person to join her was social worker Ronel Davids, who still works with her. Another interpreter, Francois Deysel, also joined Newhoudt-Druchen later. When Davids was asked about why their special relationship works, she said, “I think its 15 years of trust, the relationship is based on trust and personal boundaries. Professionally speaking, I know who the principle is and who the interpreter is. Wilma trusts us with sensitive information like when she caucuses with the President, that we won’t leak information”.
Newhoudt-Druchen adds, “When I came to Parliament I had a BA and a Masters and I needed a sign language interpreter who was on the same level as me intellectually and academically... political conversation is high brow, to follow it you need to interpret the exact political jargon being used.” She elaborated that the tone and register used and the level of sign language is different when she is doing a presentation in a local community or constituency work. Similarly, there are different dialects of sign language within South Africa, not to mention that internationally the signs use may differ.
She ended her interview by mentioning that there are only eight MPs represented in parliaments around the world, including Uganda, New Zealand, the European Union Parliament and herself, here in South Africa.
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