Mandela memorial ‘fake’ deaf signer claims schizophrenia attack

Agence France-Presse

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Thamsanqa Jantjie claims he had a sudden attack of schizophrenia during the memorial

'FLAPPING HIS ARMS' In these combination of photos taken on Tuesday, December 10, US President Barack Obama delivers a speech next to a sign language interpreter (R) during the memorial service for late South African President Nelson Mandela at Soccer City Stadium in Johannesburg. AFP/Alexander Joe

JOHANNESBURG, South Africa  The sign language interpreter at Nelson Mandela’s funeral has said a schizophrenic episode was to blame for accusations that he was an imposter who gesticulated nonsense during the entire service. (Read: Mandela memorial sign language interpreter a ‘fraud’)

Thamsanqa Jantjie was branded as a scurrilous fake after members of South Africa’s deaf community said his signing at the memorial ceremony on Tuesday, December 10 had amounted to nothing more than “flapping his arms around.”

In an interview Thursday, December 12 with the Johannesburg daily, The Star, Jantjie put his behaviour down to a sudden attack of schizophrenia, for which he takes medication.

He told the newspaper that he lost concentration, started hearing voices and hallucinating.

“There was nothing I could do. I was alone in a very dangerous situation,” he said.

“I tried to control myself and not show the world what was going on. I am very sorry. It’s the situation I found myself in,” he added.

Jantjie’s efforts at the memorial service, during which he translated eulogies by US President Barack Obama among others, triggered outrage in the deaf community and prompted a government investigation.

Cara Loening, director of Sign Language Education and Development in Cape Town, labelled him a “complete fraud” whose signing looked like someone “trying to swat a few flies away from his face and his head”.

Asked why he didn’t just leave the stage, Jantjie said that, given the historic importance of the event, he felt compelled to stay even though he could not hear or concentrate properly.


“Life is unfair. This illness is unfair,” Jantjie said.

“Anyone who doesn’t understand this illness will think that I’m just making this up,” he added.

Attended by nearly 100 sitting and former heads of state or government, the speeches at Mandela’s memorial were supposed to be interpreted into sign language for deaf viewers.

Jantjie’s signing appeared at odds with that of the public broadcaster’s signer, who was shown in a small insert box on SABC television screens.

The interview with The Star did not address the fact that Jantjie’s competence had been called into question before the memorial furore erupted.

The South Africa’s Translators’ Institute said they already had reservations about Jantjie, who had previously signed at the ruling ANC party’s events, including its centenary anniversary last year.

The institute’s chairman Johan Blaauw said there had been complaints over his work on those occasions as well, but the ruling party took no action.

Security concerns

The South African government on Thursday, December 12 admitted that  “there might be a mistake, where other people might not have understood the interpreter,” acknowledging that Jantjie was “not a professional sign language interpreter.”

“But I don’t think he was picked up from the street,” said Hendrietta Bogopane-Zulu, deputy minister for women, children and persons with disabilities, stating that he may have had problems with English or been tired.

Bogopane-Zulu also admitted that the government could not track down the company Jantjie worked for.

“We spoke to them wanting some answers and they vanished into thin air,” she said.

“It looks like they have been cheating all along.”

The revelations also raise questions about how Jantjie, who was at one point little more than an arm’s length away from Obama and UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, was vetted and received security clearance.

The White House referred all questions on the matter to the South African government but said it would be regrettable if the incident overshadowed Obama’s “very powerful remarks” at the memorial service.

“It would be a shame if a distraction about an individual who was on stage in any way detracted from the importance of that event and the importance of president Mandela’s legacy,” deputy spokesman Josh Earnest told reporters in Washington.

The South African government denied that the scandal had damaged the country’s reputation.

“Are we embarrassed as a country? I don’t think it is the right choice of word,” Bogopane-Zulu said. –

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