As questions swirled around the sign-language interpreter at South Africa’s Nelson Mandela memorial service who has been ridiculed as a “fake” by experts, the man in the center of the storm, Thamsanqa Jantjie, first stood by his performance but has now admitted that he’s a schizophrenic who was having hallucinations.
While stating that he has long been “a champion of what I’ve been doing,” Jantjie said he is schizophrenic.
In an interview with Johannesburg’s Star newspaper, he said he was experiencing hallucinations during his performance.
“There was nothing I could do. I was alone in a very dangerous situation,” Jantjie 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.”
Jantjie told the Associated Press that while he was on stage at the FNB Stadium he saw visions of angels. He said he has previously been violent and was once hospitalized in a mental health facility for more than a year.
With such a history, the fact that he stood approximately three feet from President Obama and other world leaders during Tuesday’s ceremony will raise serious security questions for South African authorities — while at the same time providing fodder for ridicule to satirists like “Saturday Night Live.”
Jantjie said he was paid R850, or about $85, to interpret at the ceremony.
Jantjie told Radio 702 in Johannesburg that he is a fully qualified interpreter and has been trusted in the past with other big events.
“I’ve interpreted in many press conferences, including the presidential conference,” he said. “There was no one at all that said I interpreted wrong.”
But the head of the South Africa Translators’ Institute said there were complaints last year after Jantjie interpreted the proceedings at the ruling African National Congress elective conference.
The entire matter prompted an apology from South African Cabinet Minister Hendrietta Bogopane-Zulu, South Africa’s deputy minister of women, children and people with disabilities, who said a mistake was made in hiring Jantjie. While she apologized to South Africa’s deaf community during a press conference, she denied that the country was embarrassed by the controversy.
“I don’t think he was just picked up on the street. He went to a school for the deaf,” she said.
She said there is no sign language standard in South Africa and deaf people spoke different dialects.
But that’s not the way Jantjie’s performance was seen by the deaf and sign language community.
“The deaf community is in outrage,” said Bruno Druchen, national director of the Deaf Federation of South Africa. “He is not known by the deaf community in South Africa nor by the South African sign language interpreters working in the field.”
Druchen said Jantjie showed no facial expressions, which are key in South African sign language, and his hand signals were meaningless.
“It is a total mockery of the language,” he added.
“It was almost like he was doing baseball signs,” deaf actress Marlee Matlin told CNN on Wednesday. “I was appalled.”
Matlin said that although each country has its own sign language, they all entail facial expressions.
She said Jantjie’s lack of facial expression was “a giveaway.”
“I knew exactly right then and there that he wasn’t authentic at all, and it was offensive; it was offensive to me,” she said.