Gossip Of The Week: The Saga Of The Mandela Memorial Sign Language Interpreter

Tuesday’s four-hour memorial to Nelson Mandela was supposed to honor the anti-apartheid revolutionary. Instead, another man stole the show that day.

No, it wasn’t President Barack Obama or the other heads of state who attended Mandela’s service garnering all the attention, it was the sign language interpreter who stood next to them at the podium when they spoke.

His name: Thamsanqa Jantjie – and he’s the subject of this week’s gossip roundup.

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It’s hard to say who had the story first, but by Wednesday, December 11, we learned the unfortunate news that Jantjie wasn’t translating for the dignitaries at all. In fact, the 34 year-old was making up his own gestures throughout the whole commemoration, according to sign language experts interviewed for articles and segments all around the world, from NBC to Fox News.

Deaf actress and Oscar winner Marlee Matlin even chimed into the discussion, telling CNN through an interpreter, “It was almost like he was doing baseball signs. I was appalled.”

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The public outcry, of course, only raised more questions. Who vetted Jantjie? Have there been complaints about his work in the past? Was any of his signing understandable?

Instead of disappearing, the ridiculed interpreter surfaced and in a surprise move, tried to clear up the gossip surrounding the situation. Jantjie admitted to South African media that although he was trained in sign language interpretation, he was schizophrenic. He claims he had had an episode on stage, which resulted in him signing terribly, seeing angels and hearing voices.

“I am very sorry. It’s the situation I found myself in,” Jantjie was quoted saying to Johannesburg’s Star newspaper.

He even revealed to the Daily Sun that he sometimes ran around in the streets naked.

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Since then, journalists have been trying to locate the company Jantjie claims he worked for, SA Interpreters. They were the ones reportedly hired by the African National Congress for Mandela’s ceremony.

While I normally encourage newsmakers to come forward, I don’t think doing so did Jantjie any good in this particular case, even if he is telling the truth. Unfortunately in my opinion, Jantjie’s excuse came out sounding a little too outlandish to be believed. What’s worse, when he boasted about his credentials as a seasoned interpreter outside of his medical condition, several people in the Twitterverse thought he was mocking their intelligence. The truth of the matter is that Jantjie will probably never be taken seriously in his profession again and it seems he may have gone overboard by disclosing too much.

On Friday, the plot thickened. The South African government told the Associated Press it is aware of reports that claim Jantjie once faced murder, rape and kidnapping charges. Many of the charges were reportedly later dropped in court because he was found mentally unfit to stand trial.

I wonder how much longer I’ll have to hear about Jantjie’s history. To tell you the truth, I’d rather read about the manhunt for the person who directly hired Jantjie. So far, nobody is stepping forward for that one, which is a shame. I also think it’s unfair to blame the entire debacle on Jantjie, especially when the world knows that so many other people should be disciplined for his mistakes.

This brings me to my next point — there’s not much you can do to change the past and really, we should move forward. As thousands of mourners continue to say goodbye to Mandela in South Africa’s capital, it’d be nice if we could refocus our thoughts on the legacy the Nobel peace laureate left behind, as opposed to somebody who didn’t even know Mandela at all.

-- Genevieve Wong

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