PRETORIA, South Africa — A man accused of masquerading as a sign-language interpreter during Nelson Mandela’s memorial service and gesticulating in gibberish as he stood beside President Obama and other dignitaries, said Thursday that he was a violence-prone schizophrenic and had seen angels descending in the stadium where the event was held.
The assertions by the man, Thamsanqa Jantjie, 34, whom sign-language experts have labeled an impostor, added one more bizarre turn to a story that has raised questions about the security at the memorial ceremony and spread a pall of distraction and embarrassment over one of the most solemn moments in South Africa’s modern history.
With Mandela lying in state in Pretoria for a second day as thousands formed lines to pay final respects, the government found itself unable to explain Jantjie’s selection for the job, admitted it had paid a bargain rate for his services and claimed that the company that supplied him had “vanished into thin air.”
Hendrietta Bogopane-Zulu, the deputy minister for women, children and people with disabilities, said Jantjie’s first language was Xhosa, one of the most widespread among South Africa’s 11 official tongues. He is “not a professional sign-language interpreter” and “the English was a bit too much for him,” she said.
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She apologized to deaf people around the world who were offended by the incomprehensible signing. However, she declined to say whether a government department, the presidency or the ruling African National Congress party was responsible for hiring the interpreter, saying it isn’t the time to “point fingers and vilify each other and start shouting.”
He was paid $77 a day, a fraction of the usual rate of between $125 and $164 an hour, said Bogopane-Zulu, the first minister to break an official silence about the incident. Discussions about Jantjie dominated South Africa’s airwaves, talk shows and social-media sites Wednesday, the first day Mandela lay in state in a glass-canopied coffin as, authorities said, some 20,000 people had filed by.
By midday Thursday, huge lines had formed again as thousands more people endured searing temperatures and long delays to catch a glimpse of the former president, who took office for a single five-year term in 1994, sealing the demise of apartheid. After lying in state for one more day Friday, his body is to be flown to the Eastern Cape region for a state funeral in his childhood village of Qunu on Sunday.
The disclosures about Jantjie raised serious security concerns for Obama, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and other dignitaries who stood next to him as they eulogized Mandela at FNB Stadium in Soweto, the black township at the center of the struggle against racist white rule. Mandela died Dec. 5 at 95.
In Washington, Secret Service spokesman Ed Donovan said vetting for criminal history and other appropriate background checks of the people onstage were the responsibility of the South Africans. He added that Secret Service agents are “always in close proximity to the president.”
At the national memorial Tuesday, Jantjie occupied a position close to center stage on the podium. He gesticulated in what was supposed to be sign language. Tens of thousands of people in the stadium and hundreds of millions of television viewers around the world watched.
But, even as a procession of leaders delivered their eulogies, Jantjie’s mind was in turmoil with visions and hallucinations, he said Thursday.
“What happened that day, I see angels come to the stadium,” he told The Associated Press. “I start realizing that the problem is here,” he said. “And the problem, I don’t know the attack of this problem, how will it come. Sometimes I get violent on that place. Sometimes I will see things chasing me.”
“I was in a very difficult position,” Jantjie said. “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.”
At his home in Soweto, he provided a similar account to the BBC, saying angels had descended into the 94,000-plus capacity stadium, disrupting his work. “It was not something that was deliberate,” he said.
A medical expert with University College London said Jantjie’s unusual sign language didn’t look like it was caused by schizophrenia or another psychosis.
“The disruption of sign language in people with schizophrenia takes many forms, but this does not look like anything I have seen in signers with psychosis,” said Jo Atkinson, a clinical psychologist and researcher at the Center for Deafness, Cognition and Language.
There was no immediate medical corroboration that Jantjie was schizophrenic.
His performance has drawn outrage from sign-language experts worldwide, who questioned how such a lapse had been even possible.
In a statement Thursday, the Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf, an organization based in Alexandria, Va., said in a statement that it had joined groups in South Africa and elsewhere in expressing disbelief.
Dawn Whitcher, the registry’s president, said in a statement and sign-language video on its Facebook page that it was dismayed “at the incomprehensible interpreting services provided at the commemoration services honoring the life and legacy of Nelson Mandela.”
On Thursday, Bogopane-Zulu said Jantjie had been vetted, but an investigation into his security clearance had begun. “I don’t think he was just picked up from the street,” she said. “He comes from a school for the deaf.
Jantjie has been seen on video performing sign-language interpretation at other prominent events in South Africa criticized as fake by advocates for the deaf, including at an appearance last December with South African President Jacob Zuma.
Jantjie said he is classified as disabled by the government because of his schizophrenia. He said he has been on medication for nine years, and had taken it the day of the memorial service. He claimed he received one year of sign-language interpretation training, though advocates for the deaf say qualified interpreters in South Africa must undergo five years of training.
Material from The Associated Press is included in this report.