The sign language interpreter at Mandela’s memorial service sparked outrage within the deaf community after signing complete and utter nonsense.
On the other hand, there were plenty of frame-able images besides upsetting selfies from the memorial that didn’t get as much attention—because they weren’t controversial enough.
First, let’s make sure we’re on the same page with the fraudulent interpreter.
“It was almost like he was doing baseball signs,” deaf actress Marlee Matlin told CNN, through a sign-language interpreter. “I was appalled.”
Though each country has its own sign language, all of them entail facial expressions, she said—and she called his lack of facial expression “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.”
And others took offence as well, with some going to social media to plead for his removal.
The “interpreter,” Thamsanqa Jantjie, 34, had a deaf member of the South African Parliament and vice president of the World Federation of the Deaf tweeting during the man’s performance that the he “is signing rubbish. He cannot sign. Please get him off.”
South African sign language interpreter Francois Deysel also tweeted at the event: “Please can someone ask the interpreter to step down from stage, it is embarrassing and making a mockery of our profession.”
Making matters further convoluted, no one is even quite sure who even hired him—although that’s currently being investigated.
Additionally—and what’s currently getting the most press—is that Jantjie told South African media he “started hearing voices” and began hallucinating during the memorial.
He said that he lost concentration because of the voices in his head.
“There was nothing I could do. I was alone in a very dangerous situation,” Jantjie told Johannesburg’s Star newspaper.
“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.”
But as public outcry grows, Jantjie continues to defend himself.
In a subsequent radio interview with CNN affiliate Radio 702 in Johannesburg, he claims to have been happy with his performance.
“I’ve interpreted in many big events,” he told Radio 702. “I think I’ve been a champion of sign language.”
The head of the South Africa Translators’ Institute says differently, though; saying that there were indeed complaints last year after Jantjie had interpreted the proceedings at the ruling African National Conference elective conference, the institute’s chairman Johan Blaauw told the South African Press Association.
After being pressed twice about his hallucinations and the voices, Jantjie reluctantly acknowledged that he was a “patient receiving a treatment in schizophrenia.”
The video of him “signing,” which was watched on television by millions worldwide and has since gone viral, shows him making the same set of hand signals over and over, regardless of what the speaker was saying. (During the memorial, he stood on stage next to speakers such as President Obama and Mandela’s grandchildren, translating their eulogies.)
The BBC’s See Hear researcher Erika Jones, also a sign language user, said his signing seems to have no grammatical base and that he simply kept repeating sign patterns when the speaker was clearly not using repetitive words.
UK deaf news blog The Limping Chicken said he had a “strange repetitive rhythm to his movements”, and “the structure of his hand and body movements didn’t seem to change no matter what the speaker was saying.”
And, yes, this is, sadly, an interesting news story.
It’s astounding that the South African government is, according to an NPR article, emailing reporters to let them know this matter is being thoroughly investigated and it’s even more astounding that this happened in the first place.
Still, there were other things that occurred during this global celebration of Mandela’s life that were peaceful and, well, anything but controversial and angering. Like this:
The Bushes and the Clintons spending the day together at FNB Stadium.
President Obama and former President Bush traveling together to South Africa on Air Force One.
It’s intriguing that conservative news outlets decided to promote President Obama’s selfie or that liberal news sources countered with a photograph from former President George W. Bush’s Instagram feed, taken at the same memorial—showing him posing with pop star Bono—instead of, say, this picture, taken in Air Force One, of former President Bush showing photos of his paintings to First Lady Michelle Obama and Hillary Clinton.
Fortunately, the White House thought these images were important enough to share on the official White House website. (So these pictures are now becoming headlines as well.)
To view the full gallery click here.
And, one more thing: stories about things like fake reporters are important to cover—and not cover up—but let’s not forget the most important thing: that politicians are actually living, breathing people too and that together they celebrated one of the greatest human beings who ever lived—Mr. Nelson Mandela.
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Editor: Bryonie Wise