Interpreter had ‘schizophrenic episode’

 Thamsanqa Janjie 'signs' for US president Barack Obama at a ceremony in Johannesburg for Nelson Mandela.

A South African sign language interpreter accused of miming nonsense as world leaders paid tribute to Nelson Mandela defended himself as a “champion” signer, but said he suffered a schizophrenic episode during the event.

Thamsanqa Jantjie, aged 34, told Johannesburg’s Star newspaper he started hallucinating and hearing voices while on stage, resulting in gestures that made no sense to outraged deaf people around the world.

“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,” he said.

The government admitted Jantjie was not a professional interpreter but played down security concerns at his sharing the podium with leaders including US president Barack Obama at the memorial on Tuesday.

“He was procured. He did not just rock up,” deputy disabilities minister Hendrietta Bogopane-Zulu told a news conference. “Did a mistake happen? Yes. He became overwhelmed. He did not use the normal signs. We accept all that.”

After the memorial, South Africa’s leading deaf association denounced him as a fake, making up gestures to be put into the mouths of Obama and his South African counterpart Jacob Zuma.

Jantjie said he did not know what triggered the attack and said he took medication for his schizophrenia.

In a radio interview, Jantjie said he was happy with his performance at the memorial.

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

The publicity surrounding Jantjie’s unconventional gestures — experts said he did not know even basic signs such as “thank you” or “Mandela” — sparked a frenetic hunt for him and his employers. Jantjie said he worked for a company called SA Interpreters, hired by the ANC.

Attempts by Reuters to track down the firm were unsuccessful.


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