12 Dec 2013

Fake’ Mandela interpreter: ‘I saw angels’

The sign language interpreter who sparked outrage in the deaf community says he suffered a kind of schizophrenic episode during the Mandela memorial, while the ANC confirms they have hired him before.

Interpreters from around the world condemned the ANC when it emerged that the man who was supposed to be interpreting speeches during the world’s biggest memorial service for Nelson Mandela, was instead making meaningless gestures on stage (see video).

But the interpreter, identified as 34-year-old Thamsanqa Jantjie, has now hit back, saying he is a genuine sign language interpreter, but that he was suffering from some kind of episode while on stage.

Mr Jantjie said he started hallucinating and in a television interview with AP (see above), he said: “What happened that day, I see angels come to the stadium.

“I start realising that the problem is here. And the problem, I don’t know the attack of this problem, how will it come. Sometimes I get violent on that place. Sometimes I will see things chasing me.”

He added: “If I’ve offended anyone, please forgive me. But what I was doing – I was doing what I believe is my calling. I was doing what I believe makes a difference in my country.

He told Johannesburg’s Star newspaper that he didn’t know what triggered the attack, and that he took medication for his schizophrenia.

I tried to control myself and not show the world what was going on. I am very sorry – Thamsanqa Jantjie

The memorial service was watched by millions around the world, and Mr Jantjie interpreted speeches for Barack Obama, Jacob Zuma, and members of the Mandela family, among others, throughout the four hour ceremony.

But users on Twitter started voicing concern that he was making up the gestures, and South Africa’s leading deaf association, DeafSA, then denounced Mr Jantjie as a fake, saying he was inventing signs.

“He’s a complete fraud,” Cara Loening, director of sign language education and development in Cape Town said on Wednesday. “He wasn’t even doing anything. There was not one sign there. Nothing. He was literally flapping his arms around.”

Some members of South Africa’s deaf community said they had previously complained to the ANC about Mr Jantjie, when he was hired to interpret at another event.

The African National Congress (ANC) said they had used Mr Jantjie’s services in the past, and were not aware of any previous complaints. But the party said the government was responsible for all aspects of organising the state memorial service for Mandela, and that it wasn’t in a position to comment.

The ANC did say that it welcomed the government’s decision to investigate.

‘I think that I’ve been a champion of sign language’

In response, Mr Jantjie said he was happy with his performance at the memorial for Nelson Mandela, who died a week ago aged 95.

“Absolutely, absolutely. I think that I’ve been a champion of sign language,” he told Talk Radio 702.

The controversy has overshadowed South Africa’s 10-day farewell to country’s former leader, whose remains were lying in state for a second day on Thursday at the Union Buildings in Pretoria, where he was sworn in as the nation’s first black president in 1994.

Revelations about Mr Jantjie’s gestures sparked a hunt for the mystery mimer on Wednesday. The government, which was in charge of the mass memorial, said it had no idea who he was, as did the ruling African National Congress (ANC), even though footage from two large ANC events last year showed him signing on stage next to Zuma.

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