Anyone who has watched the funeral of a major public figure or a good many other events where speakers are talking to huge crowds is familiar with the practice of having a sign-language interpreter on the stage to relay remarks to the hearing-impaired people in the audience.
One of those interpreters was on stage at Tuesday’s memorial service for Nelson Mandela in Johannesburg, South Africa, but, as it turns out, he wasn’t signing at all. The man, who stood right next to world leaders including President Obama, was just “flapping his arms around,” Cara Loening, director of Sign Language Education and Development in Cape Town, told Agence France-Presse.
How in the world did this happen?
No one seems to know. According to the New York Daily News
, “Collins Chabane—one of South Africa's two presidency ministers—said the government was investigating the incident, but did not release any more details about the bizarre stunt.”
Some reports indicate the man is the African National Congress party’s official interpreter and has been present at previous events. People have reportedly complained to the ANC about him. The ANC doesn’t seem to be confirming any of that, however.
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However the interpreter got onto the stage, members of the deaf community were outraged by his sign-language gibberish. Interpreter Francois Deysel pleaded for him to be removed from the stage, for example:
Apparently fraudulent sign-language interpreting is a widespread issue in South Africa, according to Ingrid Parkin, principal at St. Vincent School for the Deaf in Johannesburg. Many of the people who hire them don’t know sign language themselves, so they can’t adequately validate the interpreter’s skills.
Obama doesn’t seem to have made any remarks about the interpreter who stood next to him on the stage, but he may actually be grateful to him. The controversy does seem to have overshadowed the president’s “selfie” at the service
The interpreter, whose name is Thamsanqa Jantjie, has claimed in a series of interviews that he has schizophrenia.
"What happened that day, I see angels come to the stadium," he said.
A government minister did acknowledge that Jantje is “not a professional sign language interpreter” and “the English was a bit too much for him," according to The New York Times