The Schizophrenic Sign-language Interpreter

I’ve researched the reports from NPR, Reuters, BBC ( and more, and clearly the controversy surrounding the sign-language interpreter at Nelson Mandela’s memorial service is inconclusive and yet to be resolved.  It caught my attention because the interpreter, Thamsanqa Jantjie, has publicly admitted that he takes medication for schizophrenia and that while he was onstage, and just a few feet away from President Obama and other dignitaries, he began hallucinating.

Jantjie has been both open and contradictory in comments to the press.

He told a reporter at Johannesburg’s Star newspaper that he began hearing voices and hallucinating.  “There was nothing I could do.  I was alone in a very dangerous situation.  I tried to control myself and not show the world what was going on.  I am very sorry.  It’s the situation I find myself in.”

When asked on Johannesburg Talk Radio 702 if he was happy with his performance, Jantjie said, “Absolutely, absolutely.  I think that I’ve been a champion of sign language.”

Jantjie says he works for a company called SA Interpreters and has been hired by the government to interpret at other functions.  He said he couldn’t understand why people were complaining now, rather than at those events.  “I am not a failure.  I deliver,” he said.

Advocates for the deaf who have seen him interpret at other occasions claim he is a fake who signs in gibberish.  Braam Jordaan, a deaf South African and board member of the World Deaf Federations, believes he was making up signs as he went along.  Twitter users with sign language knowledge said during Mandela’s memorial he used signs for “donkey, “lightning bolt” and “prawns.”

The BBC said the South African government under President Jacob Zuma is investigating what happened and has issued a statement saying “it wishes to assure South Africans that we are clear in defending the rights and dignity of people with disabilities.”

There is the rub and for myself, anyway, the heart of the question.  Assuming it is true that Jantjie actually is a sufferer of schizophrenia who was hired out to the government to perform sign-language duty at an official event, where do you draw the line in defending the rights of people with disabilities?  Jantjie himself has admitted to having violent episodes, and reportedly faced murder charges in 2003 and rape charges in 1994.

Surely the South African government and SA Interpreters have a plethora of unanswered questions to address.  How much, if any, screening took place in the planning of such a high-level event? And assuming there was adequate screening, how much , if any, concern should there have been in placing a person with schizophrenia in such a position as Jantjie found himself at Mandela’s memorial.

I don’t have the answers but I would really love to hear what you think.  LET’S TALK!


Hey READERS, I would love to hear from you.

Is your MIND FULL of old thoughts or new?



The Schizophrenic Sign-language Interpreter — 5 Comments

  1. Linda, it seems that what likely amounted to a superfluous screening of a sign-language interpreter for this event failed everyone – including Jantjie. Was a respectful regard for his dignity appropriately considered and, ultimately, displayed in hiring him? Hardly! Not the way to go in “defending the rights of people of with disabilities” but rather a mockery of same. A very sorry situation all around.

  2. Thanks for your thoughts, Carol and Susan. I agree, the screening did fail everyone and the South African government is ultimately responsible. I like to think we might do a better job since the Americans with Disabilities Act was passed in 1990.

  3. Thank you for opening this up for discussion, Linda. I am a Psychiatric Nurse Clinician and know that some people with schizophrenia can be stabilized on medication to a point where they can hold down important positions. Some cannot. It would appear that this interpreter clearly was not stabilized on medication. At this juncture, I would have to echo Susan Triplett’s excellent remarks. Carol Ann Castagna

    • Thanks for your input as a Psychiatric Nurse Clinician, Carol. It is hopeful that some people with schizophrenia can be so stabilized as to hold down important positions. And I agree, Susan has put the right perspective on this very sensitive issue.

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