Sign language interpreter 'saw angels' at Mandela memorial


Sign language interpreter Thamsanqa Jantjie stands next to US President Barack Obama during Nelson Mandela's memorial service at FNB Stadium on December 10, 2013 in Johannesburg, South Africa. Jantjie has since said he was suffering from schizophrenia-related hallucinations while he attempted to translate the ceremony, leading to questions about why he was hired.



JOHANNESBURG, South Africa — The bizarre story of a “fake” sign language interpreter at Nelson Mandela’s memorial service has taken a darker turn after the man said he suffers from schizophrenia and has a violent past.

Thamsanqa Jantjie, who stood next to United States President Barack Obama, United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and other world leaders as he signed throughout the event, said Thursday that he was hallucinating while on stage, and “saw angels.”

He was also once investigated for fraud amounting to R1.5 million ($145,000), according to South African broadcaster eNCA, though GlobalPost has not confirmed that information.

The revelations raise serious security concerns, with the South African government admitting it may have been a mistake to select Jantjie as the official signer for former president Mandela’s memorial.

Hendrietta Bogopane-Zulu, deputy minister of women, children and people with disabilities, said an investigation was underway to determine how Jantjie was given security clearance for the event.

She told a press briefing that government officials have tried to reach the company that provided Jantjie as an interpreter, but its owners “have vanished into thin air.”

Jantjie, who lives in Bramfischerville, a low-income area west of Johannesburg, told The Star newspaper that he was hired to translate the ceremony by SA Interpreters in Johannesburg at a rate of R850 ($85) for the entire, four-hour service.

The company paid him well below the going rate, according to deputy minister Bogopane-Zulu, who admitted that Jantjie was “not a professional” sign language interpreter. His first language is Xhosa, she said, and translating from the English spoken for most of Tuesday’s service “was a bit too much.”

Bogopane-Zulu apologized to deaf people around the world who were offended by Jantjie’s signing, which experts said was incomprehensible gibberish.

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Jantjie, too, apologized for his performance on stage, but said he had signed at other events without complaint.

He told the Associated Press that he had previously been hospitalized in a mental health facility for more than a year, and had in the past become violent “a lot.”

“What happened that day, I see angels come to the stadium ... I start realizing that the problem is here. And the problem, I don’t know the attack of this problem, how will it comes. Sometimes I react violent on that place. Sometimes I will see things that chase me,” Jantjie said.

“I was in a very difficult position,” he told the AP. “And remember those people, the president and everyone, they were armed, there was armed police around me. If I start panicking I’ll start being a problem. I have to deal with this in a manner so that I mustn't embarrass my country.”

Jantjie told The Star: “There was nothing I could do. I was alone in a very dangerous situation. 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."

South Africa’s ruling party, the African National Congress, said it had "over the years" used Jantjie as a translator, but it was the government that hired him for the Mandela event.

Until yesterday, the ANC "had not been aware of any of complaints regarding the quality of services, qualifications or reported illnesses of Mr. Jantjie," party spokesman Jackson Mthembu said in a statement.

However, the South Africa Translators’ Institute said that had complaints had been made after Jantjie interpreted at an ANC conference in Manguang last year. “The ANC did not do anything,” the institute’s chairman, Johan Blaauw, told SAPA news agency.

According to eNCA, Jantjie had also worked as an interpreter for the Justice Department for four years.

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