My heart goes out to Thamsanqa Jantjie. You don’t recognize the name, but you certainly know the face by now. He’s the guy who was supposed to give sign language interpretations of the speeches at Nelson Mandela’s memorial service in South Africa on Tuesday. Instead, Jantjie looked like he was calling plays at a baseball game. The condemnation of his performance was swift, brutal and global. But the South African officials who made it possible for Jantjie to embarrass himself and his nation deserve the same.
“We are shocked by the quality of sign language interpretation at Nelson Mandela’s memorial — if it could be called interpretation at all,” Paul Breckell of Action on Hearing Loss told NBC News. “This ‘fake interpreter’ has made a mockery of South African Sign Language and has disgraced the South African Sign Language interpreting profession,” said Bruno Druchen, national director of DeafSA in a statement released on Facebook. And Nicole Du Toit, an official sign language interpreter, told the Associated Press, “It was horrible, an absolute circus, really really bad. Only he can understand those gestures.”
Now that Jantjie has broken his silence, we can understand what happened. And none of what he says is comforting. In various interviews Thursday, Jantjie said he suffered from schizophrenia, saw angels, heard voices and hallucinated on stage. “I start realizing that the problem is here. And the problem, I don’t know the attack of this problem, how will it come,” Jantjie told the AP. “Sometimes I get violent on that place. Sometimes I will see things chasing me.”
Jantjie said he is being treated for his schizophrenia, which is great. But the folks who really need their heads examined are the officials who allowed him to take the stage in the first place. Hendrietta Bogopane-Zulu, South Africa’s deputy minister for women, children and people with disabilities, told reporters Thursday, “I don’t think he was just picked up from the street. He comes from a school for the deaf. He could speak sign language with his peers but he is not a professional sign language interpreter.” To make matter worse, Bogopane-Zulu said the company Jantjie worked for “vanished into thin air.”
Jantjie has asked that everyone “please forgive me.” South African officials should ask the same from the hearing impaired who were left out of the joyous celebration of Mandela’s life. And they should apologize for the enormous security breach the Jantjie episode revealed. Luckily for all of us, nothing more serious happened.
Follow Jonathan on Twitter: @Capehartj