An imposter speaks fake sign language at Nelson Mandela's memorial service. Surely there has never been a bigger, better, gutsier display of chutzpah in history? Photo: AP/Matt Dunham
An imposter speaks fake sign language at Nelson Mandela’s memorial service. Surely there has never been a bigger, better, gutsier display of chutzpah in history? Photo: AP/Matt Dunham

Johannesburg (AFP) – The South African government admitted it made a “mistake” in choosing a sign language interpreter for Nelson Mandela’s memorial who was later exposed as a fake by experts, and who claimed to be schizophrenic.

Experts said Thamsanqa Jantjie’s signing in front of US President Barack Obama and other world leaders amounted to little more than “flapping his arms around,” prompting an apology from the government.

Admitting Jantjie was “not a professional sign language interpreter,” junior minister for disabilities Hendrietta Bogopane-Zulu said that “we can only apologise to the deaf community”.

“Did a mistake happen? Yes,” said the deputy minister. “But I don’t think he was picked up from the street.”

Bogopane-Zulu said he may have had problems with English or been tired. “I would not say he was fake,” she told AFP, while acknowledging “it was bad” because he had failed to sign properly.

Jantjie insists he is qualified and a “champion of sign language,” but said his behaviour was down to a sudden attack of schizophrenia, for which he takes medication.

“There was nothing I could do. I was alone in a very dangerous situation,” he told Johannesburg daily The Star, adding that he was hearing voices and hallucinating.

“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.

The revelations raised 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.

Brian Leary, a US Secret Service spokesman, said that it was the South African organising committee’s responsibility to deal with participants and sign language interpreters.

“For the purposes of this memorial service, this would include vetting them for criminal history and other appropriate records checks,” Leary said, but did not confirm whether such precautions were taken by the South Africans.

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Barack Obama delivers a speech during the memorial service for Nelson Mandela at Soccer City Stadium …
Pretoria said none of the service providers at the event had their health status checked.

One of those responsible for crowd control told AFP they were hired by a private security firm the night before the service in a nearby township.

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.

South Africa’s deaf organisations rubbished the suggestion that this was a one-off problem, claiming they had complained before to the government about Jantjie.

Footage has emerged showing him signing for President Jacob Zuma at the ruling ANC party’s 100th anniversary celebrations in 2012.

In a statement the ANC said Jantjie previously did work for it, but the party had “not been aware of any of complaints regarding the quality of services”.

Vanished into thin air

The government has so far been unable to track down SA Interpreters, the company Jantjie worked for.

“We spoke to them wanting some answers and they vanished into thin air,” said Bogopane-Zulu. “It looks like they have been cheating all along.”

AFP was unable to reach the company. Its fixed line no longer exists and mobile phones for the firm and Jantjie went unanswered.

Jantjie’s performance at the memorial service 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.

“This illness (schizophrenia) is unfair,” he said. “Anyone who doesn’t understand this illness will think that I’m just making this up.”

Medical experts poured scorn on that claim too.

“There were many features of Mr (Jantjie’s) signing that do not chime with the typical presentation of disordered signing caused by a psychotic episode,” said Jo Atkinson, an clinical psychologist at University College London.

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

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

Pan South African Language Board, a government body set up to ensure respect for all languages in the country, has received a language rights violation complaint about the incident and is investigating.

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27 COMMENTS

  1. Thank God Sata wasn’t there to speak.It would have been two fakes at the same time. One playing like he knows sign language and the one playing like he knows how to be President.

    56?9?

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    • He must have drunk ka Altezza for confidence just before the presentations, thats why he was seeing those things he’s talking about. Atase!!!

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    • Honestly the Janttie did a great job there, he acted as a gentleman. He started fairly well, no one could doubt his signing. But as speeches went on anyone could see that his interpretation were too short, and same.
      But he is a success that man, he has a nice house though, and he must be having a good job. He can be a good pastor.

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    • we are all humans it might have been a mistake that no one will like it happens again but i tell u no big event goes by without a distraction. thank God our world leaders were secured for africa would have been in problems. remember president obama had to be sworn in twice during his first term.

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  2. Is it even ethical to have one guy interpret for so many people over such a long period of time? I have no idea what training interpreters go through but from my point of observation we could have had a team of about 4 interpreters to handle that occasion.

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    • You’re right, I read somewhere it should have been multiple interpreters. This man is connected to someone in the ANC, no doubt.

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  3. What a clown! At least he made my week cause am still laughing my socks off. But on the otherhand what a blunder by the ANC. A huge embarrassment! Geez.

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  4. I we chi demon @Enka leave Mr Sata out of you demonic hallucination.Wechinkula we!U DO that because u want to propel yo non entity leaders?Who is HH or Mumba?Wait and see how they vanish into political oblivion.

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  5. The guy had one lifetime opportunity to make world news, one opportunity and he took it. How can you blame him?

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  6. Coming back to the issue,it is the worst mistake that organisers made. Anyway they are still crawling especially in Anc.l can’t imagine what would’ve happened if they had planned the worst.It is suspecious how they’ve ‘vanished in the air’?

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  7. Iwe! wembwa @enka, wilatutomba ku bongo, ayi ifimano kwati ni chingalu, why are u including our president dont u kno dat leadership comes from God. careful walasheta amapepala.

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  8. We have come to the conclusion , there was nothing wrong with the interpreters sign language – its just Obama is a babbling ***** and the interpreter was simply translating best he could!

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  9. Sequence of events, this guy was rushing to the memorial but had to take a dump first. He then forgot to wipe his a.$$ in his rush for the memorial. As all seats were taken when he got there, the only space he saw was right next to the podium so he rushed there and stood assertively, a trick he learnt from his late grandfather, a famous and accomplished gatecrasher. Anyways, seeing he had forgotten to wipe his a.$$, flies were attracted in droves to the scent that engulfed this man and he proceeded to wave these flies away. Unfortunately, everyone assumed from these wild hand gestures to get rid of the green flies, that he was the sign language interpreter.
    …..thats what I heard….

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  10. The man is lying, and I bet if he has mental issues, it’s a personality disorder, not schizophrenia. First this man has insulted deaf people and now he is insulting those who struggle with mental illness. Most people with schizophrenia are not violent, and visual hallucinations are relatively rare with the disease (auditory hallucinations “hearing things or voices that aren’t there” is what most people experience). The man has a lot of money and has worked for the ANC before; he must have a connection to someone high up. He seems like a con artist to me, or just a relative who got a job through corruption.

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  11. I did think it was a bit humorous, how absurd it is. But, deaf people were cheated no matter how good or bad the speeches were, and that’s a shame. Especially those who don’t have access to internet.

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  12. I’m sure the world out there is just thinking, ‘African mediocrity, they can’t even get the basics right’.

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  13. I blame this on the organisers. I recently took a tour of the United Nations head-quarters in New York and I remember the tour guide saying that interpreters are changed every 20 minutes because it is nearly impossible for the human brain to interpret without mistakes past 20 minutes.

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