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Uproar grows over interpreter at Mandela memorial

Thamsanqa Jantjie gestures at his home during an interview with the Associated Press in Johannesburg on Dec. 12, 2013.

Tsvangirayi Mukwazhi/Associated Press

The owners of an interpreting company have "vanished into thin air" as South Africa investigates how a man with schizophrenia and a history of violence was allowed to stand next to world leaders as an official sign-language interpreter during the Nelson Mandela memorial this week.

The escalating scandal over the much-ridiculed interpreter took several more unexpected twists and turns on Thursday, threatening to overshadow the final days of official mourning for Mr. Mandela, the anti-apartheid hero who died last week at the age of 95.

The South African government, admitting errors in the incident, is trying to sort out the mess by investigating a tangled web of fraud allegations, mental illness, security breaches, incomprehensible interpreting and a vanished company. The ruling African National Congress confirmed it had often hired the interpreter for major events, but it blamed the government for the decision to hire him for the memorial.

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Thamsanqa Jantjie stood next to U.S. President Barack Obama and other world leaders at the Mandela memorial on Tuesday as a sign-language interpreter. Deaf groups said his interpreting was random gibberish. They said they had been complaining about him for more than a year after he performed similarly nonsensical interpreting at several high-level ANC events.

Mr. Jantjie told reporters that he had schizophrenia and suffered an attack at the memorial because he was "too happy" and "excited" and had hallucinations about angels entering the stadium. In an interview with The Associated Press, he said he had been violent "a lot" in the past. A local report said he had once used a brick to hold a hostage in a Johannesburg court.

Mr. Jantjie added to the mystery by dodging questions about whether he was qualified to be a professional interpreter. In one interview, he flatly refused to disclose anything about his qualifications.

Police visited Mr. Jantjie at his home on Thursday afternoon, reportedly to ask him to go with them to a psychiatric hospital, but he refused to go.

A South African television network said Mr. Jantjie had been investigated for allegedly defrauding the Department of Justice for about $150,000 (U.S.) for interpretation work that he had not done. The results of the investigation were not known, it said.

Hendrietta Bogopane-Zulu, a deputy cabinet minister, said Mr. Jantjie had been hired through a private company, SA Interpreters, that had provided "substandard" services and failed to pay proper salaries. She said the company paid Mr. Jantjie less than $80 for his work at the memorial at a huge soccer stadium filled with world leaders and thousands of mourners.

"We tracked down the owners of the company … and they vanished," Ms. Bogopane-Zulu told a media briefing. "We spoke to them wanting some answers and they vanished into thin air. Over the years, they have managed to get away with this. They have been providing substandard sign-language interpreting services to many of their clients and nobody picked up on it."

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Deaf groups in South Africa said they filed a formal complaint to the ANC in mid-2012 after seeing Mr. Jantjie doing nonsensical interpreting at ANC events, but got no response.

In a statement, the ANC confirmed that it had used Mr. Jantjie "over the years." But it said the government, not the party, had hired him for the memorial. It said the party "had not been aware" of the complaints about him last year.

Some security experts, including a former member of Mr. Obama's bodyguard team, said the presence of an interpreter with a history of violence was a security lapse, but White House officials refused to comment on the issue.

Meanwhile, thousands of people continued to join huge queues in Pretoria to pay their final respects to Mr. Mandela, whose body is lying in state at the Union Buildings. The three-day lying-in-state period will end on Friday afternoon, and a state funeral will be held on Sunday in the village of Qunu, where Mr. Mandela grew up.

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About the Author
Africa Bureau Chief

Geoffrey York is The Globe and Mail's Africa correspondent.He has been a foreign correspondent for the newspaper since 1994, including seven years as the Moscow Bureau Chief and seven years as the Beijing Bureau Chief.He is a veteran war correspondent who has covered war zones since 1992 in places such as Somalia, Sudan, Chechnya, Iraq and Afghanistan. More


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