Interpreter Thamsanqa Jantjie must have been honored when he was chosen to stand beside international dignitaries at former South African President Nelson Mandela’s memorial service Tuesday. He described the experience of being picked for the role as “a dream come true.” But unfortunately, Jantjie’s sign language interpretation drew ridicule and ire when watchers found that his gestures and movements did not match the comments of the speakers. In defense of his faulty sign language, the longtime interpreter revealed that he suffers from schizophrenia and was having a schizophrenic episode during the ceremony.
"The deaf community is in outrage," said Bruno Druchen, director of the Deaf Federation of South Africa, according to CNN. "He is not known by the Deaf Community in South Africa nor by the South African Sign Language interpreters working in the field."
Jantjie said that he was hallucinating — seeing angels and hearing voices — during the four-hour long ceremony. According to USA Today, South African cabinet minister Hendrietta Bogopane-Zulu apologized to the deaf community for the incident, though she declined to join in on criticizing Jantijie. "I don't think he was just picked up on the street. He went to a school for the deaf," she said.
Schizophrenia is a severe brain disorder that causes people to interpret reality abnormally. It is a chronic condition requiring long-term treatment, without which could lead to a combination of hallucinations, delusions, and disordered thinking and behavior. These symptoms are similar to what Jantjie described experiencing on stage at the memorial. "I am suffering from schizophrenia, which is controllable. I am under treatment," Jantjie said, according to CNN.
"What happened that day, I see angels come to the stadium ... I start realizing that the problem is here,” he added. “I was in a very difficult position. And [I] 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."
Jantjie works for a South African interpreting company and was reportedly paid $85 to interpret during Tuesday’s memorial. And, though officials have been careful not to place blame on the interpreter for the mishap, the deaf community still sees this as an unacceptable occurrence for the international deaf community. “The interpreter at the service was clearly not competent and did not use hand shapes, movements, or facial expressions typical of South African sign language,” said Andries van Niekerk, spokesman for the National Institute for the Deaf (NID). “The NID is saddened that the deaf in attendance (at the service) could not understand what other great statesmen said about the legacy that the father of our nation leaves behind.”