Our daily lives are mostly a mixture of drab routine and unpleasant surprises – however, from time to time, something unexpected happens which makes life worth living. Something of this order occurred at the memorial ceremony for Nelson Mandela last week.
Tens of thousands were listening to world leaders making statements. And then …it happened (or, rather, it was going on for some time before we noticed it). Standing alongside world dignitaries including Barack Obama was a rounded black man in formal attire, an interpreter for the deaf, translating the service into sign language. Those versed in sign language gradually became aware that something strange was going on: the man was a fake; he was making up his own signs; he was flapping his hands around, but there was no meaning in it.
A day later, the official inquiry disclosed that the man, Thamsanqa Jantjie, 34, was a qualified interpreter hired by the African National Congress from his firm South African Interpreters. In an interview with the Johannesburg newspaper the Star, Jantjie put his behaviour down to a sudden attack of schizophrenia, for which he takes medication: he had been hearing voices and hallucinating. “There was nothing I could do. I was alone in a very dangerous situation,” he said. “I tried to control myself and not show the world what was going on. I am very sorry. It’s the situation I found myself in.” Jantjie nonetheless defiantly insisted that he is happy with his performance: “Absolutely! Absolutely. What I have been doing, I think I have been a champion of sign language.”
[Extract. Appeared in The Guardian on December 16th 2013.]