JOHANNESBURG – The sign language interpreter at Nelson Mandela’s memorial says he suffers from schizophrenia and hallucinated and saw angels while gesturing incoherently just 3 feet away from President Barack Obama and other world leaders, outraging deaf people worldwide who said his signs amounted to gibberish.
South African officials scrambled Thursday to explain how they came to hire the man and said they were investigating what vetting process, if any, he underwent for his security clearance.
“In the process, and in the speed of the event, a mistake happened,” deputy Cabinet minister Hendrietta Bogopane-Zulu said.
She apologized to deaf people around the world who were offended by the incomprehensible signing.
However, she declined to say whether a government department, the presidency or the ruling African National Congress party was responsible for hiring the sign interpreter, telling reporters it isn’t the time to “point fingers and vilify each other and start shouting.”
The man at the center of the controversy said in an interview with The Associated Press on Thursday that he began hallucinating while onstage in the stadium filled with tens of thousands of people and that he tried not to panic because there were “armed policemen around me.”
Thamsanqa Jantjie added that he has schizophrenia, was once hospitalized in a mental health facility for 19 months and has been violent in the past.
The disclosures raised serious security concerns for Obama, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and other dignitaries who stood next to Jantjie as they eulogized Mandela at FNB Stadium in Soweto, the black township at the center of the struggle against racist white rule. Mandela died on Dec. 5 at 95.
In Washington, Secret Service spokesman Ed Donovan said vetting for criminal history and other appropriate background checks of the people onstage were the responsibility of the South Africans. He added that Secret Service agents are “always in close proximity to the president.”
White House Press Secretary Jay Carney declined to comment on how South Africa handled the hiring of the translator.
However, he added: “If in fact the individual was not signing, that’s unfortunate because that meant that people who rely on sign language to follow the speeches were not able to.”
Jantjie has been seen on video performing sign language interpretation at other prominent events in South Africa criticized as fake by advocates for the deaf, including at an appearance last December with South African President Jacob Zuma.
The government left many questions about the bizarre episode unanswered, including how much money the translation company was paid and Jantjie’s precise role in the company – and even whether it really exists.
AP journalists who visited the address Jantjie provided for SA Interpreters found a different company, whose managers said they knew nothing about the translation firm. A woman who answered the phone at a number Jantjie provided said she worked for the company that hired him but declined comment and hung up.
The government said it tried to track down the company but the owners “have vanished into thin air,” according to Bogopane-Zulu, the deputy minister of Women, Children and People with Disabilities.
She said the translation company offered sub-standard services and the rate they purportedly paid the translator, $77 a day, is far below the usual rate of up to $164 an hour.
Ordinarily, sign language interpreters in South Africa are switched every 20 minutes to maintain their concentration levels, she said. Jantjie was onstage for the entire service, which lasted more than four hours.
Jantjie, meanwhile, insisted he did proper sign language interpretation of the world leaders’ speeches. But he also apologized for a performance dismissed by many experts as gibberish.
“I would like to tell everybody that if I’ve offended anyone, please, forgive me,” Jantjie told the AP at his tidy home on the outskirts of Soweto that was outfitted with a big-screen TV in the living room and two late-model cars in the carport.
“What happened that day, I see angels come to the stadium ... I start realizing that the problem is here. And the problem, I don’t know the attack of this problem, how will it comes. Sometimes I react violent. ... Sometimes I will see things that chase me,” he said.
“I was in a very difficult position,” he added. “And remember those people, the president and everyone, they were armed, there was armed police around me. If I start panicking I’ll start being a problem. I have to deal with this in a manner so that I mustn’t embarrass my country.”
Asked if he had ever been violent, he responded: “Yes, a lot.”
He declined to provide details, but responded to another question about his past violence by suggesting his illness was behind it. “I’m suffering from a very difficult illness. The illness that you are not in position of understanding yourself at times.”
Jantjie said that on the day of the memorial service he was due for a regular six-month mental health checkup to determine whether the medication he takes was working or needs to be changed, or whether he should enter a mental health facility for treatment.
He did not tell SA Interpreters that he was due for the checkup, but said an owner of the company was aware of his condition.
Police went to his home later Thursday to check on his well-being and determined that he was not a danger to himself or others, police spokesman Brigadier Neville Malila said.
A medical expert with University College London said Jantjie’s unusual sign language didn’t look like it was caused by schizophrenia or another psychosis.
“The disruption of sign language in people with schizophrenia takes many forms, but this does not look like anything I have seen in signers with psychosis,” said Jo Atkinson, a clinical psychologist and researcher at the Center for Deafness, Cognition and Language.
Jantjie said he is officially classified as disabled by the government because of his schizophrenia. He said he has been on medication for nine years, and had taken it the day of the memorial service.
Jantjie said he received one year of sign language interpretation training, though advocates for the deaf say qualified interpreters in South Africa must undergo five years of training.