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The sign-language interpreter who stood alongside President Barack Obama during his speech at the South African memorial for Nelson Mandela says he saw angels coming into the stadium and he had to fight down an apparent attack of schizophrenia, during which he’s been violent in the past, because there were “armed policemen around me,” according to an Associated Press reporter.
The story about sign language interpreter is being told by AP reporter Alan Clendenning, who interviewed Thamsanqa Jantjie for 45 minutes.
Officials from South Africa have reported there was a “mistake” in the hiring of Jantjie, who stood on the stage during the speeches at Mandela’s memorial but almost immediately came under attack for being a fraud, since his sign language motions were not recognizable.
“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 on that place,” he told AP. “Sometimes I see things that chase me.”
He described to Clendennning that he was “in a very difficult position.”
“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.”
He told AP he had become violent “a lot” and was due that same day to get a routine six-month mental-health exam to find out whether his medication was working.
AP reported he did not tell the company that hired him, SA Interpreters in Johannesburg, about his appointment but they were aware of his condition. The AP report said that company could not be located.
AP said the answers from Jantjie “raise serious security issues for Obama, other heads of state and U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon who made speeches at FNB Stadium in Soweto, Johannesburg’s black township.”
Jantjie told AP he previously had been hospitalized in a mental-health facility for a period of more than a year.
South African officials apologized to the deaf for the “incomprehensible” signing, and they told AP an investigation was under way.
Jantjie has insisted he was doing proper sign-language interpretation of the speeches, but Bruno Druchen, of the Deaf Federation of South Africa, said in a Fox News report that Jantjie was not signing in South African or American sign languages.
He said it also could not have been in any other known sign language because there was no structure to his arm and hand movements, Fox reported.
“He didn’t follow any of the grammatical rules and structure of the language. He just invented his signs as he went along,” Delphin Hlungwane, a DeafSA interpreter told Reuters.
Jantjie told The Star, “Life is unfair. This illness is unfair. Anyone who doesn’t understand this illness will think that I’m just making this up. 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.”
Fox also reported Ingrid Parking, of the St. Vincent School for the Deaf in Johannesburg, said complaints had come in from China to Canada about the movements that were “gibberish.”
NBC News reported that an investigation already was under way, with Hendrietta Bogopane-Zulu, the South African deputy minister for women, children and persons with disability, confirming the review of whether, or how, the interpreter had been given security clearance.
The report said a spokesman for the ruling National African Congress party denied that officials knew about the interpreter’s condition.
“We are not aware that he was being treated for [schizophrenia]. He did not disclose it. That is another thing that is concerning to [us] because we are having this information for the first time,” said Jackson Mthembu. “This man was close to many presidents, including our own. We are worried about when we have procured him for activities for our own services. That is what we are concerned about.”
Secret Service spokesman Ed Donovan told the AP in an email that “agreed-upon security measures between the U.S. Secret Service and South African government security officials were in place” at the time.
Jantjie reported he was paid $85 for the day, but other officials noted that many qualified interpreters charge up to $165 per hour for their services.
CNN reported officials for programs for the deaf said Jantjie showed no facial expressions, which they described as a key to the messaging.
Deaf actress Marlee Matlin told CNN the lack of such expressions was a “giveaway.”
“I knew exactly right then and there that he wasn’t authentic at all, and it was offensive; it was offensive to me,” she said.
Columnist Cathy Heffernan wrote in the Guardian that perhaps it actually was a huge service to deaf people.
By bringing attention to the problem.
“While inaccurate interpreters on a world stage are rare, bad interpretation is surprisingly common and something that deaf people who use interpreters face on a regular basis. Across public services and the courts unqualified people are asked to translate, even in situations where clear communication can make the difference between life or death,” she wrote.