Scandal over 'schizophrenic' Mandela signer

Scandal over 'schizophrenic' Mandela signer

JOHANNESBURG - The South African government admitted Thursday it made a "mistake" in choosing a sign language interpreter for Nelson Mandela's memorial who was later exposed as a fake by experts, and who claimed to be schizophrenic.

Experts said Thamsanqa Jantjie's signing in front of US President Barack Obama and other world leaders amounted to little more than "flapping his arms around," prompting an apology from the government.

Admitting Jantjie was "not a professional sign language interpreter," junior minister for disabilities Hendrietta Bogopane-Zulu said that "we can only apologise to the deaf community".

"Did a mistake happen? Yes," said the deputy minister. "But I don't think he was picked up from the street."

Bogopane-Zulu said he may have had problems with English or been tired. "I would not say he was fake," she told AFP, while acknowledging "it was bad" because he had failed to sign properly.

Jantjie insists he is qualified and a "champion of sign language," but said his behaviour was down to a sudden attack of schizophrenia, for which he takes medication.

"There was nothing I could do. I was alone in a very dangerous situation," he told Johannesburg daily The Star, adding that he was hearing voices and hallucinating.

"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," he added.

The revelations raised questions about how Jantjie, who was at one point little more than an arm's length away from Obama and UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, was vetted and received security clearance.

Brian Leary, a US Secret Service spokesman, said that it was the South African organising committee's responsibility to deal with participants and sign language interpreters.

"For the purposes of this memorial service, this would include vetting them for criminal history and other appropriate records checks," Leary said, but did not confirm whether such precautions were taken by the South Africans.

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