Mandela interpreter claims schizophrenic episode

11:18 PM, Dec 12, 2013   |    comments
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Sign language interpreter Thamsanqa Jantjie, who was interpreting at the memorial service of late former president Nelson Mandela speaks at his home in Bramfischerville, South Africa, on Dec. 11, 2013.(Photo: Itumeleng English, AP)
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  • JOHANNESBURG - The South African sign language interpreter accused of using "fake" signs at Nelson Mandela's memorial service this week said he suffered a schizophrenic episode at the event during which he hallucinated and heard voices.

    Thamsanqa Jantjie made the admissions to Johannesburg's Star newspaper Thursday following allegations that have led to him being called an impostor by sign language experts.

    "There was nothing I could do. I was alone in a very dangerous situation," Jantjie said. "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 latest revelations prompted an apology Thursday by a South African cabinet minister who said a mistake was made in hiring Jantjie. Hendrietta Bogopane-Zulu apologized to South Africa's deaf community during a press conference but denied that the country felt embarrassed by the controversy.

    "I don't think he was just picked up on the street. He went to a school for the deaf," she said.

    Still, in a separate interview with the Associated Press, Jantjie said that while he was on stage at the FNB Stadium he saw visions of angels. He also told the AP that he has previously been violent and was once hospitalized in a mental health facility for more than a year.

    Jantjie stood approximately three feet from President Obama and other world leaders during Tuesday's ceremony to honor Mandela, and the state of Jantjie's mental health that day will raise serious security questions for South African authorities.

    Jantjie told the Star newspaper that he was paid R850, or about $85, to interpret at the ceremony.

    "Life is unfair. This illness is unfair. Anyone who doesn't understand this illness will think that I'm just making this up," he said.

    He said that as a result of the episode his ability to hear and interpret was impaired, but that he felt that given the gravity of the occasion he couldn't leave.

    On the day of the memorial service Jantjie was due get a regular six-month mental health checkup to determine whether the medication he takes was working, whether it needed to be changed or whether he needed to be kept at a mental health facility for treatment, the AP reported.

    Sign language experts claim that Jantjie's interpretations for numerous dignitaries, heads of state and even members of the extended Mandela family amounted to "gibberish."

    "He wasn't even doing anything, There was not one sign there. Nothing. He was literally flapping his arms around," Cara Loening, director of Sign Language Education and Development in Cape Town, told the Agence France-Presse news service.

    Asked if he was happy with his performance by local radio station Talk Radio 702 on Thursday, Jantjie said: "Absolutely! What I have been doing I think I have been a champion of sign language. I have interpreted many big events. Not only the event that's in question now," Jantjie said.

    He said these events included political press conferences and the funeral of Albertina Sisulu, the widow of anti-apartheid activist and Robben Islander Walter Sisulu.

    He refused to explain details of his qualifications and referred such questions to the company that booked him for the event, a company he called SA Interpreters. Not a lot is known about that company.

    AP journalists who visited the address that Jantjie provided for SA Interpreters found a different company there where managers said they knew nothing about the firm.

    Hendrietta Bogopane-Zulu said Thursday that government officials have tried to track down the company that contracted Jantjie for the memorial service but that the owners "have vanished into thin air."

    Kim Hjelmgaard reported from London, follow him on Twitter: @khjelmgaard


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