Mandela Interpreter Says He Nearly Had a Violent Breakdown Three Feet from Obama

The sign language interpreter accused of using made-up gestures during Obama's Mandela memorial speech said he was hallucinating. 

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The sign language interpreter accused of faking his way through translations of speeches during the massive Nelson Mandela memorial service in Johannesburg on Tuesday said he saw "angels" during the ceremony and nearly had a violent schizophrenic episode while standing three feet from the President of the United States.

Thamsanqa Jantjie told the Associated Press that he has a history of mental illness, and, worryingly, has had "a lot" of violent incidents in the past, and was concerned about what might happen because he was surrounded by armed guards:

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 come. Sometimes I get violent on that place. Sometimes I will see things chasing me."

He also said that he was once hospitalized in a mental health facility for more than a year.

Jantjie apologized for what happened, but oddly enough, he still seems to believe that his translation was authentic. A South African government minister suggested that Jantjie is not a native English speaker, and so he simply couldn't follow the speeches delivered in English.  In a separate radio interview, he also offered a non-apologetic defense:

"If I was interpreting not right, why it was not been pick up by that time? You must remember, you talking about interpreter that has been interpreting through these years. And then if I was interpreting wrong through those years, why should it become an issue now?"

Jantjie has worked public events before but, according to NBC, there is some confusion as to how closely Jantjie should be associated with the African National Congress:

Various video clips emerged appearing to show the same man signing at previous ANC events. But ANC spokesman Jackson Mthembu said the interpreter was nothing to do with the political party. Later Wednesday the party's communications manager Keith Khoza appeared to contradict this when he confirmed to NBC News that interpreter had translated for party events in the past, but only as an unpaid volunteer. Khoza said the interpreter was employed by the South African government for the Mandela memorial event.

When questioned about the (obvious) safety concerns of hiring a possible schizophrenic with a violent past to stand three feet from the U.S. president, the Secret Service said, "Agreed upon security measures between the U.S. Secret Service and South African Government security officials were in place during the recent memorial service in Johannesburg," adding, "Program items such as stage participants or sign language interpreters were the responsibility of the host organizing committee." 

Adding yet another bizarre twist to the story, government officials say they reached out to SA Interpreters, the company who supplied Jantjie for the event, but that the owners "have vanished into thin air."

Members of the deaf community yesterday took Jantjie's nonsense gestures as a sign of deep disrespect. Chief executive of the UK's Action on Hearing Loss Paul Breckell said, "We are shocked by the quality of sign language interpretation at Nelson Mandela’s memorial - if it could be called interpretation at all." He added that Jantjie's antics "meant that deaf or hard of hearing people across the world were completely excluded from one of the biggest events in recent history." National Director of the Deaf Federation of South Africa Bruno Druchen said "there was no meaning in what he used his hands for."

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.