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Mandela signer dubbed 'fraud' may have suffered schizophrenic episode

Published time: December 12, 2013 11:40
Edited time: December 12, 2013 13:24
A sign language interpreter during the memorial service at FNB Stadium December 10, 2013 in Johannesburg, South Africa. (AFP Photo / Brendan Smialowski)

A sign language interpreter during the memorial service at FNB Stadium December 10, 2013 in Johannesburg, South Africa. (AFP Photo / Brendan Smialowski)

The South African sign language interpreter accused of aimlessly ‘flapping his arms around’ as world leaders paid tribute to Nelson Mandela claimed he was a ‘champion’ signer, but suffered a schizophrenic episode at the memorial.

"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," the interpreter, identified as 34-year-old Thamsanqa Jantjie, told Johannesburg newspaper, The Star.

Jantjie told the newspaper that he lost concentration, began hearing voices and suffered from hallucinations which, according to the AP, apparently included angels. He does not know what brought on the attack, although he said the jubilation he felt that day could have played a part in it. He added that he currently takes medication to treat his schizophrenia.

When asked why he did not exit the stage when the bout came on, he said the historical importance of the event compelled him to stay on stage and continue to make signs that did not make sense.

“Life is unfair. This illness is unfair," he said.

"Anyone who doesn't understand this illness will think that I'm just making this up,"
he added. AP reported that Jantjie also has a history of violence, although no details were forthcoming.

Millions of television viewers witnessed Jantjie translate eulogies for Nelson Mandela delivered by leaders including US President Barack Obama and his South African counterpart, Jacob Zuma, during Tuesday’s memorial service.

Cuba's President Raul Castro (3rdR) pays his respects to former South African President Nelson Mandela during the lying in state at the Union Buildings in Pretoria on December 12, 2013. (AFP Photo/ Markus Schreiber)

'Champion of sign language'

Jantjie's unconventional signing, which did not synch with that of the public broadcaster's signer in a small insert box on SABC television screens, has largely been panned by signing experts. It is claimed that Jantjie failed to correctly sign ‘thank you’ or ‘Mandela’ in any of the world’s 200 forms of sign language estimated to be in use today.

Cara Loening, director of Sign Language Education and Development in Cape Town, dismissed him as a "complete fraud" whose signing looked like someone "trying to swat a few flies away from his face and his head," AFP reports.

Andries van Niekerk, spokesman for the National Institute for the Deaf (NID), told the South African Press Association (SAPA) that what happened during the memorial service was unacceptable.

“The interpreter at the service was clearly not competent and did not use hand shapes, movements or facial expressions typical of South African sign language,” he said.

“The NID is saddened that the deaf in attendance [at the service] could not understand what other great statesmen said about the legacy that the father of our nation leaves behind.”

On Thursday, Deputy Minister for Women, Children and Persons with Disability of the Republic of South Africa, Hendrietta Bogopane-Zulu, said the government could “only apologize” to the deaf community for Jantjie performance. She added that it was not for the government to decide on whether or not the interpreter would be hired again.

Bogopane-Zulu admitted a mistake had been made in hiring Jantjie and an investigation was ongoing to determine how he received his security clearance. She said government officials are attempting to track down the company that had provided Jantjie as an interpreter. The co-owners of the firm, however, have apparently “vanished into thin air.”

Despite sending waves of outrage throughout the deaf community worldwide and overshadowing in part the funeral itself, Jantjie told Talk Radio 702 he was satisfied with his performance at the memorial.

"Absolutely, absolutely. I think that I've been a champion of sign language," he said.

When contacted by Reuters he said he said he was bemused that people were complaining now as rather than during other performances.

In this picture taken on December 10, 2013 US President Barack Obama delivers a speech next to a sign language interpreter (R) during the memorial service for late South African President Nelson Mandela at Soccer City Stadium in Johannesburg. (AFP Photo / Alexander Joe)
"I'm not a failure. I deliver," he said, before hanging up.

Jantjie’s competence had apparently been called into question by South Africa's Translators' Institute prior to the memorial ceremony.

The institute's chairman Johan Blaauw said complaints had been registered after Jantjie signed at the ruling African National Congress (ANC) party’s events, including its 2012 centenary.

The ANC, however, denied any knowledge of Jantjie, but said it was looking into the matter.

"I'm very, very surprised," Reuters cites spokesman Jackson Mthembu as saying. “We will follow this up. We are not sure if there is any truth in what has been said."

The ANC has come under fire for poor organization of the historic memorial service for the 95-year-old anti-apartheid hero, held at a gigantic soccer stadium in the Soweto township of Johannesburg.

Public transportation breakdowns tied up many mourners from getting to the event, while audio system failures kept many of the tens of thousands in attendance from hearing the leaders’ speeches. Police also reportedly failed to search the first wave of attendees arriving at the 95,000 capacity stadium, where nearly 100 sitting and former heads of state or government were present.

Meanwhile, the South African Police released a statement Wednesday saying retired Archbishop Desmond Tutu's home was burgled while he attending the memorial service for Mandela.

The burglary reportedly transpired at Tutu’s Cape Town home between 7pm and 9pm on Tuesday, but no arrests have so far been made, according to police.

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