Translating Sona: How the middle finger was displaced by a thumbs-up

19 February 2018 - 09:14 By Petru Saal

Translating this year’s state of the nation address was a breeze‚ says the sign language expert who went viral after showing the middle finger at Sona in 2017.

Zazi Ndebele was catapulted to fame after translating an F-bomb dropped by an ANC MP as insults flew around former president Jacob Zuma in the National Assembly.

“I had to interpret it as it is‚ no omission‚ no altering‚ no deleting‚” he said at the time.

He initially did not understand all the fuss‚ saying that he was merely doing his work as a parliamentary interpreter. But this time it was smooth sailing.

“This was probably the best Sona in years because this time around opposition parties gave the president a chance to speak and as interpreters we were happy about that‚” he said at the weekend.

Ndebele performs a specific ritual ahead of the Sona that includes meditating for an hour. And last year‚ he was “prepared psychologically and physically for the worst”.

“Last year there was a lot of fighting‚ a lot of back and forth between MPs. People were speaking over one another‚ not allowing the other person to speak‚” he said.

We were all excited for the speech as opposed to other years when we knew things were going to be rough in parliament.

That middle finger moment‚ captured on video and shared far and wide‚ elevated him to near-celebrity status. When he woke up the next day he was bombarded with WhatsApp messages. He eventually switched off his phone‚ saddened by his face being plastered all over social media. But‚ at the same time‚ he was pleased because the whole saga focused attention on the deaf community and sign language as a whole.

“As an interpreter it gets very hard. You need to be very fast. This year it was smooth. It is wonderful as an interpreter when the address runs smoothly without interruptions. We were all excited for the speech as opposed to other years when we knew things were going to be rough in parliament.”

He was grateful that opposition parties had allowed President Cyril Ramaphosa to speak.

“The EFF and the DA were darlings on Friday night. The president spoke clearly and slow enough for us to interpret. It wasn’t chaotic where people were screaming at one another. No one was swearing‚ it was amazing‚” he added.

Ramaphosa’s speaking style‚ using simple terms‚ helped the sign language translators.

“It was a smooth-flowing speech with no interruptions. What more can you ask for as an interpreter?” said Ndebele.

Newly-elected President Cyril Ramaphosa delivered the state of the nation address on February 16 2018.