The sign-language translator who stood near President Barack Obama and other world leaders at Nelson Mandela’s memorial service wasn’t a professional interpreter and told South African news organizations he suffers from schizophrenia.
“He can speak sign language with his peers, but he was not a professional,” Hendrietta Bogopane-Zulu, deputy minister of women, children and people with disabilities, told reporters in Johannesburg today.
The interpreter, identified as Thamsanqa Jantjie, stood next to Obama, United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and other dignitaries as they delivered tributes to Mandela at the memorial on Dec. 10. His sign language was derided as “meaningless” and a “disgrace” by the Deaf Federation of South Africa.
Jantjie told Johannesburg’s 702 talk radio station that he is receiving treatment for schizophrenia. The Star newspaper based in Johannesburg reported that Jantjie told them he had a schizophrenia-related attack and started hearing voices while on stage. Jantjie couldn’t be reached on his mobile phone.
His presence on the same stage as world leaders raised questions about security at one of the largest such gatherings of heads of state since the funeral of assassinated U.S President John F. Kennedy in 1963.
A spokesman for the U.S. Secret Service, which is responsible for protecting the president, said program participants such as interpreters are the responsibility of the organizers. That includes background checks and other vetting, Edwin Donovan said in an e-mail.
“Agreed-upon security measures between the U.S. Secret Service and South African Government security officials were in place” during the memorial service, Donovan said. “Secret Service Special agents are always in close proximity to the president, whether he is overseas or in residence at the White House.”
Jantjie was registered with an organization called South African Interpreters that has now disappeared, Bogopane-Zulu said.
“With regards to the company, we did track down the owners,” she said. “We spoke to them wanting some answers and they vanished into thin air. It’s a clear indication that over the years they have managed to get away with this. They have been providing sub-standard sign language interpreting services to many of their clients and nobody has picked up.”
Jantjie, whose first language is Xhosa -- the same as Mandela’s -- was paid 800 rand ($77) for the full-day event, Bogopane-Zulu said. That compares with the as much as 1,700 rand an hour typical fee for a sign language interpreter, she said.
“To be able to translate to sign language you have to be able to understand the language that is being spoken on the podium and the English was a bit too much,” Bogopane-Zulu said.
Jantjie’s hand shapes and gestures were meaningless, according to the Deaf Federation of South Africa, which says its represents about 600,000 people who are culturally and linguistically deaf. He didn’t use the established and recognized signs for the names of Mandela, South Africa President Jacob Zuma, former president Thabo Mbeki or South Africa, the organization said yesterday.
“I’ve been a champion of sign language,” Jantjie, 34, told 702. “I’ve interpreted at many conferences, including the presidential conference, and there was no one at all who said I interpreted wrong. If what I had been interpreting was wrong all these years, why should it become an issue now?”