The sign language interpreter at Nelson Mandela’s memorial service, Thamsanqa Jantjie, has been accused of signing “gibberish” last week and of being an impostor and a fake. He has said that he has schizophrenia, suffered an episode during the ceremony and heard voices and saw angels. It has been revealed that he has a criminal background, including being convicted of theft, acquitted of rape, accused of murder and, most recently, in a group of people that killed two men.
The more details that emerge about Jantjie, the more one wonders about how someone lacking sufficient qualifications was given such a huge responsibility. As a sign language interpreter, Jantjie was standing only an arm’s length away from President Obama, United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon and other global leaders.
The controversy highlights how, too often, accommodations for individuals with disabilities are an afterthought. Jantjie was being paid just 800 rand a day, less than the standard fee for a sign language interpreter, which is 1,300 to 1,700 rand (£76-£100).
Jantjie Had Few Credentials in Sign Language…
Deaf individuals and experts around the world have been criticizing Jantjie, noting that he did not appear to know even basic signs such as “thank you” and “Mandela.” Questions have arisen earlier about Jantjie after he signed at the ANC elective conference last year. The chairman of the SA Translators’ Institute (Sati), Johan Blaauw, said that there has been complaints against him then but “the ANC did not do anything” and as a result “this thing has left the whole of South Africa with egg on its face.” A spokesperson for the ANC said that Jantjie had approached them as a volunteer and because of this, they had not confirmed his credentials.
Jantjie had worked at the Boksburg Magistrate’s Court as an ordinary interpreter, not a sign language one; he stopped working there in 2011 due to his schizophrenia. Asked about his training in sign language, Jantjie said he had studied at a place that does not exist, the “University of Tecturers.” Asked to produce his certificate about his interpreting qualifications, Jantjie offered a convoluted story:
Jantjie said he had put it and other documents in a briefcase in a car since receiving a call from the Office of the Presidency asking about his proficiency and details of who had procured his services.
The car was not at home at the time, he said.
Regarding his having a schizophrenic episode during the memorial service, Jantjie said he had postponed going to Sterkfontein Psychiatric Hospital to “be part of the historic moment.”
Last week, Jantjie was said to have worked for SA Interpreters, a company that was said not to have existed, though records show that as recently as this past June, it had billed the African National Congress (ANC) for his services. On Sunday, South Africa’s Sunday Times said that Jantjie had been employed by a company owned by the ANC’s religious and traditional affairs desk head, Bantubahle Xozwa.
…But No One Had Questioned Jantie’s Lack of Credentials Before
Hendrietta Bogopane-Zulu, South Africa’s deputy minister for women, children and people with disabilities, acknowledged that a “mistake” was made to use Jantjie but stopped short of saying he would not be employed again. While acknowledging that SA Agencies had “vanished into thin air” and had been providing “substandard services to clients,” she also pointed out this was the first time anyone, including anyone in the deaf community, had complained to her office about Jantjie.
Bogopane-Zulu also emphasized that there is a “diversity of dialects, cultures and ethnicities in South Africa.” South African sign language has more than 100 dialects, so it is all but impossible for anyone to understand all of them. “The issue of sign language has always been about where you live, what school you go to and what language you speak,” Bogopane-Zulu says, contending that by no means should South Africa feel embarrassed.
Jantjie’s first language is not English but Xhosa, one of 11 official languages in South Africa. According to Bogopane-Zulu, at last week’s memorial service, he was “not able to translate from English to Xhosa to sign language.” Another interpreter had been “similarly unable to participate when host Cyril Ramaphosa spoke in the Zulu language.”
The lack of background checks into Jantjie’s criminal history is a definite concern. But the real issue here is not so much about his qualifications and mental illness but about education, access and South Africa’s legacy of the very inequality that Mandela fought against. As philosopher Slavoj ˇi˛ek comments in the Guardian, it can be said that the whole point of having Jantjie up there on the stage “interpreting” was not so much for the deaf but because his presence “makes us (who can hear) feel good to see the interpreter, giving us a satisfaction that we are doing the right thing, taking care of the underprivileged and hindered.”
Even at a ceremony to honor someone so key to its history, the very societal wrongs that Mandela fought against have reemerged, a reminder that much work remains to be done to fight inequality and show real solidarity with those on the edges of society.
Photo of Ban Ki-moon with Jantjie beside him via GovernmentZA/Flickr