Newsmaker – Thamsanqa Jantjie: A con, crazy, criminal or ballsy?

But memorial sign interpreter has questions of his own.

Thamsanqa Jantjie agrees with South Africans horrified by his introduction of the words “prawns” and “rocking horse” to speeches at Tuesday’s memorial service for former president Nelson Mandela.

“Why did it take them so long to realise I was making things up because I have been doing it for so long?” he told City Press on Thursday.

It all started when deaf actress Marlee Matlin took to Twitter to say: “Fake ‘interpreter’ makes up sign language during #Mandela service. Unbelievable!”

Matlin, who won a Best Actress Oscar in 1987 for Children of a Lesser God, has more than 278?000 followers on Twitter, many of whom retweeted her complaint – and an international storm erupted.

In the days that followed, Jantjie was labelled a schizophrenic, a con artist, a man with a criminal past as long as his arm and the ballsiest person in South Africa.

But Jantjie simply says he’s a deeply misunderstood man who will never quit his job.

On Thursday, Jantjie defended his performance shortly before two police officers arrived at his Braamfischerville, Soweto, home to take him to Sterkfontein Hospital, a state psychiatric facility on Gauteng’s West Rand.

He declined their offer, arguing: “If I go now to Sterkfontein, I am destroyed for the rest of my life. Because now the government will get the right opportunity of shutting my mouth. I must clear my name.”

Jantjie later told City Press he’d been in the sign language translation business for nine years and never received complaints before.

“Why did it take them so long to realise that I was making things up because I have been doing it for so long?” he said.

He also claimed he was a qualified sign language interpreter but couldn’t provide any proof.

“If you want my qualification, go to the company that employs me. The government is busy with an inquiry so I don’t want to talk about my qualifications.”

But the company, Interpreters?SA, has vanished. The deputy minister of the women, children and people with disabilities department, Hendrietta Bogopane-Zulu, said on Thursday the company had been providing “substandard services” for some time and now could not be found.

By Thursday, Jantjie admitted to reporters that he suffered from schizophrenia and his wife showed eNCA a bag full of medication he took for his condition.

But Jantjie, who told other reporters he had seen “angels” at FNB Stadium clammed up about his illness, saying only that he “wasn’t okay”.

But by Friday, it turned out that Jantjie was a man with a sketchy past.

The Daily Dispatch reported that Jantjie, whose nickname is Bompi and who grew up in Bloemfontein, dropped out of primary school.

His cousin, a former school principal, told the paper he never attended high school.

He was later employed by the justice department in Boksburg, where he was a court interpreter who was, by all accounts, good at his job.

But he left after being accused of R1.5?million fraud relating to claims – and, eNCA revealed, after he allegedly held a colleague hostage with a brick.

He was, they reported, charged with rape in 1994, theft in 1995, housebreaking in 1997, malicious damage to property in 1998; and murder, attempted murder and kidnapping in 2003.

Whether or not he was convicted remains unclear, as the National Prosecuting Authority says it has no records.

Jantjie, though, believes he is a victim. “Why are they raising these issues now? It’s not like I was working under the carpet or behind curtains. I’ve always worked in front of them and why did they not complain then? Why now?”

He said he had also worked other “massive” functions. “I interpreted at Mama Albertina Sisulu’s funeral, ANC’s Siyanqoba rallies, [and] various government and ANC media briefings.”

But he quickly added: “Of course, I was very honoured and excited.”

And he has no plans to quit.

“If our people still need interpretation, I will be famous for the next 10 years.”

What he really said

American comedian and talk show host Jimmy Kimmel asked a real sign language interpreter to translate some of Thamsanqa Jantjies’ highlights.

During great-granddaughter Pumla’s address, Jantjies really said:

“I support basic salutations here salutations. Inside joining in this week’s cigarette inside to prove and on and on to support I would please to say from me to you?...?talking to you so far.”

During one of ANC deputy president Cyril Ramaphosa’s stints at the podium, Jantjies said:

“Hello, welcome so far. Well, cigarette join bringing in different to you?...?a circle and I would like to pray this offering. Basically, this is fun – all of these balls to prove this is good. I’m sorry.”

– Natasha Joseph

He’s done this before

US broadcaster CBS News’ archival footage of a press conference on June 24 shows Jantjies did the same thing during an international press briefing given by President Jacob Zuma.

It was two weeks after Mandela was hospitalised and shortly before US President Barack Obama arrived in South Africa.

I asked Zuma: “Nelson Mandela is critically ill at a time when US President Barack Obama is due to visit South Africa. Should he cancel his trip?”

Expert sign language interpreter Pholoho Selebano revealed he interpreted the question as: “Toilet! Toilet! Union! Forehead!”

He said he saw “angels” during Mandela’s memorial. I wonder what he saw six months before?

– Debora Patta

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