"Fake" Obama Sign Interpreter Says He Was Distracted By Hallucinations of Angels

Your News Companion by Ben Mathis-Lilley
Dec. 12 2013 10:58 AM

That "Fake" Obama Sign Interpreter Says He Was Distracted By Hallucinations of Angels

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In these combination of pictures taken on December 10, 2013 US President Barack Obama delivers a speech next to sign language interpreter Thamsanqa Jantjie (R) during the memorial service for late South African President Nelson Mandela at Soccer City Stadium in Johannesburg

Photo by Alexander Joe/AFP/Getty Images

The story of the "fake" sign interpreter at Tuesday's Mandela memorial just went from bizarre news story to international security concern. In a lengthy interview with the Associated Press this morning, the man in question, Thamsanqa Jantjie, said that he suffers from violent bouts of schizophrenia and said he feared he was on the verge of one while standing only feet from President Obama and other world leaders on stage:

"What happened that day, I see angels come to the stadium ... I start realizing that the problem is here. 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," Jantjie said.
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"I was in a very difficult position," he added. "And 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." Asked how often he had become violent, he said "a lot" while declining to provide details.

Jantije, 34, said that he was once hospitalized in a mental health facility for more than one year, and that on the day of the memorial he had been due for his regular six-month mental health checkup to see whether the medication he is currently taking was working or whether he needed to be re-admitted. He admits that he kept his appointment a secret from the company that hired him, although claims his bosses knew of his mental health problems. That, however, remains unconfirmed because the company—in the words of South African authorities—has "vanished into thin air."

As for his highly questionable sign language itself, Jantjie says that—despite all other claims to the contrary—he was indeed performing proper (if somewhat distracted) sign language. "If I was interpreting not right, why it was not been pick up by that time?," he said in a separate radio interview today, adding that he received one year of formal training sign language interpretation at a school in Cape Town and had worked a number of other high-profile events. "You must remember, you talking about interpreter that has been interpreting through these years. And then if I was interpreting wrong through those years, why should it become an issue [only] now?" (Of course, as we learned yesterday, people had complained about his particular brand of sign language at least once before.)

Then again, Jantije's probably not in the best position to review his particular performance. When showed video footage of his himself on stage by the AP, he replied: "I don't remember any of this at all."

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Josh Voorhees is a Slate senior writer. He lives in Iowa City. Follow him on Twitter.