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Mandela memorial interpreter blames schizophrenia for sign language farce

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Thamsanqa Jantjie claims he started hallucinating and hearing voices during Tuesday's memorial

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sign language interpreter (flickr)
sign language interpreter (flickr)

The sign language interpreter accused of faking his way through Nelson Mandela's memorial service has defended his record, blaming the incident on a schizophrenic episode he suffered during Tuesday's event. The interpreter, Thamsanqa Jantjie, told Johannesburg's Star newspaper today that he started hallucinating and hearing voices on stage, causing him to mime in ways that deaf viewers and sign language experts described as incomprehensible.

"There was nothing I could do. I was alone in a very dangerous situation," Jantjie said. "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."

"We are not sure if there is any truth in what has been said."

Bruno Druchen, the director of the South Africa's Deaf Federation, earlier this week told the Associated Press that Jantjie was "literally flapping his arms around" on stage, as he interpreted speeches delivered by President Barack Obama, South African President Jacob Zuma, and other world leaders. Other sign language experts said the man could not even interpret basic words like "thank you" and "Mandela."

In the interview with Star, Jantjie said he takes medication to treat his schizophrenia, though he could not explain what triggered the episode this week. Schizophrenia is a severe mental illness that can cause hallucinations, paranoia, and delusions. An estimated 24 million people suffer from the disorder worldwide, according to the World Health Organization.

"Anyone who doesn't understand this illness will think that I’m just making this up."

"Life is unfair. This illness is unfair," Jantjie added. "Anyone who doesn't understand this illness will think that I’m just making this up."

The interpreter also said that he worked for a company called SA Interpreters, which was hired by South Africa's governing African National Congress (ANC), though Reuters was unsuccessful in its attempts to track down the company. Hendrietta Bogopane-Zulu, deputy cabinet minister, acknowledged to the Associated Press today that "a mistake happened" in hiring Jantjie, adding that an investigation is underway. Officials have sought to track down the company that employs the interpreter, but its owners "have vanished into thin air," she added.

The ANC told Reuters that it was unaware of the matter, though South Africa's Deaf Federation had raised concerns about Jantjie's abilities prior to this week's memorial. In an interview this week with South Africa's City Press, federation vice chair Wilma Newhoudt-Druchen confirmed that the organization filed a complaint with the ANC as early as mid-2012, after Jantjie interpreted a speech delivered by President Zuma. According to Newhoudt-Druchen, the federation never received a response.

In an interview with the Associated Press, Jantjie claimed he was once hospitalized at a mental institution for more than a year, and admitted to having violent outbursts in the past, though he declined to elaborate. The revelation has raised security concerns for Obama and other world leaders, many of whom stood just yards away from Jantjie at Tuesday's ceremony.

"I'm very, very surprised," ANC spokesman Jackson Mthembu told Reuters when asked about Jantjie's claims. "We will follow this up. We are not sure if there is any truth in what has been said."