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.
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.