Voice of the Marikana Commission

2012-11-25 10:00
He just loves languages and has a voice that would not be lost behind a radio microphone. Lucas Ledwaba meets the interpreter at the nerve centre of all the Marikana discourse

Aman addressing a gathering of striking mine workers roars a slogan in isiXhosa: “Phansi nge gundwane phansi!” His voice booms over a loudhailer.

A ripple of laughter sweeps through the auditorium of the Rustenburg Civic Centre where the MarikanaCommission of Inquiry is holding hearings investigating the deaths of 44 people during the violent Lonmin strike in August.

The man is from the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (Amcu) and is addressing mine workers from a police nyala.

This scene is from a police video flighted at the commission this week.

The laughter from the audience was not prompted by the man’s speech but, instead, by the interpretation of the slogan.

“The man then says ‘Down with a mouse down!’” comes the interpretation in English.

The interpreter interrupts the laughter by explaining that igundwane is a mouse, but in the context of what the man was saying, it means “sellouts”.

The interpreter is a likeable, dapper 69-year-old man with tufts of grey hair on his head and a rich voice that would be the envy of many radio station managers and voiceover recording artists.

His name is Abram Abbey Mahlangu and he’s a retired interpreter who is now simply doing this work for the love of languages.

Mahlangu is the man who has the difficult task of translating the legal terms, speeches, comments and content from video clips to the audience at the commission.

He hardly ever takes notes, relying instead on his sharp memory.

His aging ears do fail him sometimes, though, particularly when it comes to interpreting content from video clips.

Then technicians have to rewind and replay.

Mahlangu doesn’t limit himself to the formalities of interpreting what’s being said, he goes further.

Sometimes he interrupts proceedings to explain things that would have otherwise gone unexplained, like the other day when he explained to the commission that the sharp, pointed steel rods carried by striking mine workers were called incula in isiXhosa.

Mahlangu says he became an interpreter quite by chance.

He had, following the advice of friends who loved his voice, auditioned for a job as a radio announcer at Radio Bantu in the early 1960s, but was unsuccessful.

Then one day in 1963, after travelling from his hometown Bethal in Mpumalanga to seek work in Joburg, he was arrested for not having a special permit to be in the city.

At his court hearing the following day, he refused to answer a question put to him when he realised the interpreter was not doing a proper job.

He addressed the magistrate himself in “suiwer Afrikaans”, and by lunch time that very day, he was being sworn in as a court interpreter.

The career that followed took him to all the corners of South Africa.

He retired in 2009 after working in many court houses across the country.

He’s proficient in all 11 official languages and Fanagalo, the language spoken on South Africa’s mines.

He held the position of chief trainer at the Justice College in Pretoria between 1986 and 2006, training interpreters for all the country’s courts.

After his retirement, he was called to serve as head trainer for interpreters from Lesotho, Botswana and Swaziland.

Mahlangu says he still works as an interpreter “for the love of the job and my country, and also as part of training other aspirant interpreters in the different styles of interpreting”.

He says a good interpreter needs to go beyond the mere task of translating, but has to understand the country’s diverse cultures to assist the courts “and other instances with cultural inequalities”.

A good interpreter, he says, should possess a very good memory, be a good listener and communicator, and have a love of languages.

The grandfather of two says to relieve the strain of his demanding occupation, he lights up on a Camel cigarette, a trait he copied from a magistrate he admired back in the day. It started with him just trying to copy the man, the way he held his cigarette and his snazzy style of dress.

That’s Mahlangu, the voice of the Marikana Commission of Inquiry.