Sign Language Interpreter “Saw Angels” During Mandela Ceremony but “No Fake”

A South African sign language interpreter accused of miming nonsense as world leaders paid tribute to Nelson Mandela defended himself as a “champion” signer on Thursday (Dec. 12), but said he suffered a schizophrenic episode during the event.

The interpreter, 34-year-old Thamsanqa Jantjie, told Johannesburg’s Star newspaper he started hearing voices and hallucinating while on stage, resulting in gestures that made no sense to outraged deaf people around the world.

In an interview with Reuters Television at his Johannesburg home, Thamsanqa Jantjie described Tuesday as “the most terrible day of my life, as you have seen the results it came to the whole of newspapers but in brief on that day in question my state, my physical state was not fine, but it’s not a justification of everything, but it’s just I want to put it in the clarity that I was not fine on the day in question.”

The government admitted Jantjie was not a professional interpreter but played down security concerns at his sharing the podium with world leaders including U.S. President Barack Obama at the memorial on Tuesday.

After the memorial, South Africa’s leading deaf association denounced him as a fake, making up gestures to be put into the mouths of Obama and his South African counterpart Jacob Zuma.

Jantjie said he did not know what triggered the attack and said he took medication for his schizophrenia.

“Yes I am taking my medication, usually, positively, and it controls me, it assists me a lot but at times you cannot control some of these things” said Jantjie.

Besides the security issues, the controversy has cast a shadow over South Africa’s 10-day farewell to its first black president, who died a week ago aged 95.

It also heaps more pressure on Zuma, who is fighting a slew of corruption allegations against him and his administration and who was booed by the crowd on Tuesday.

Footage from two large African National Congress (ANC) events last year shows Jantjie signing on stage next to Zuma, although the ruling party said it had no idea who he was.

When contacted by Reuters, he said he could not understand why people were complaining now, rather than after other events. “I’m not a failure. I deliver,” he said.

“I’ve got a training as an ordinary interpreter, necessary skills as interpreter, that’s why I get a job as an interpreter, not further than that” he added.

The publicity surrounding Jantjie’s unconventional gestures – experts said he did not know even basic signs such as “thank you” or “Mandela” – sparked a frenetic hunt for him and his employers.

Jantjie said he worked for a company called SA Interpreters, hired by the ANC for Tuesday’s ceremony at Johannesburg’s 95,000-seat Soccer City stadium.

Attempts by Reuters to track down the company were unsuccessful. Bogopane-Zulu said its management had fled the glare of publicity, with the suggestion that it had been providing sub-standard interpreters for some time.

Thamsanqa Jantjie told Reuters that he has been an interpreter for nine years and that no one had ever called his interpreting skills into question.

“My worry is that if I was doing something that is speechless for all these years, why were they quiet these organisations, these universities, these institutions, then it’s a question that has to be asked before they call me a fake,” he said.

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