The South African interpreter accused of using fake sign language at Nelson Mandela’s memorial service Tuesday admitted that his actions were triggered by a schizophrenic episode.
Thamsanqa Jantjie claims that he began to hallucinate while interpreting the ceremony’s speeches into sign language, the Associated Press reports. He admits to suffering from schizophrenia and was reportedly due for a mental health checkup that very day. Sign language experts determined that his nonsensical “signs” were not an actual interpretation of the day’s speeches.
In an interview with AP, Jantjie, who spent several minutes in close proximity to U.S. President Barack Obama and several other world leaders, said that he tried to stay calm despite experiencing a vision of “angels” flying into the stadium. “What happened that day, I see angels come to the stadium … I start realizing that the problem is here,” Jantjie said. “And the problem, I don’t know the attack of this problem, how will it comes. Sometimes I react violent on that place. Sometimes I will see things that chase me.”
“I was in a very difficult position,” Jantjie added. “And remember those people, the president and everyone, they were armed, there were 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.”
Jantjie managed to control himself during the episode but admitted that his schizophrenia often has dangerous side effects. When asked how often he comes violent while experiencing an episode, he said “a lot.”
Given his mental health issues and his admission of violent behavior in the past, many have expressed concern as to how he managed to bypass security and position himself so closely to preeminent international figures. During a Thursday press conference, South African Deputy Disability Minister Hendrietta Bogopane-Zulu insisted that Jantjie was properly vetted before the memorial service, and that his presence did not constitute a security breach.
"In terms of security clearance, that is in a process, we are requesting to check his vetting,” Bogopane-Zulu said, via the BBC. "But normally when you do provide a service at a particular level, you will be vetted and as you could see, he had his accreditation, so he didn't just walk through."
However, Bogopane-Zulu said that the service hired by the South African government to provide a sign language interpreter, SA Interpreters, has “vanished into thin air” in the wake of the incident. Jantjie told AP that he was paid about $85 to work at the memorial service. Furthermore, he claims that the company that hired him was aware of his medical condition but not of his scheduled doctor’s appointment.
Bogopane-Zulu added that Jantjie’s fraudulent signs were a result of the man’s inability to accurately convey the English language. “There are as many as a hundred sign language dialects, Bogopane-Zulu told reporters, adding that “the English was a bit too much for him.”
Still, sign language experts insisted that Jantjie’s signs were completely inaccurate. "He’s a complete fraud. He wasn't even doing anything, There was not one sign there. Nothing. He was literally flapping his arms around," Cara Loening, director of Sign Language Education and Development in Cape Town, told AFP.