What should have been an all-inclusive celebration of the life of Nelson Mandela, a celebration that drew over 90 heads of state, including celebrities worldwide, ended in an embarrassing, enraging disappointment for the South African deaf community and the deaf community worldwide.
As a deaf person, I am thoroughly insulted that someone like Thamsanqa Jantjie was allowed access as a self-proclaimed qualified sign language interpreter to what should have been a secure event held in Mandela’s memory.
Jantjie was the sign language interpreter for the televised Mandela memorial Tuesday at the 90,000 seat soccer stadium in Soweto. He has been accused of being fraudulent. Passing himself off as qualified, he was hired by the South African government to interpret the Mandela memorial. Even more infuriating is that Jantjie reportedly said he has interpreted other significant events in South Africa before, but he is not familiar to the South African deaf community or to the community of South African interpreters.
Braam Jordaan, a board member with the World Federation of the Deaf (WFD) Youth Section said on the DeafSA Facebook page that Jantjie’s signing skills demonstrated he did not know South African Sign Language (SASL): “The structure of his hand, facial expressions and the body movement did not follow what the speaker was saying.” Jantjie’s signs show they are probably “home signs” and that he is not a professional sign language user, and has little, if any, knowledge of South African deaf culture.
Jantjie was hired by an agency called SA Interpreters but repeated attempts at contacting the agency were not fruitful. Apparently, according to Hendrietta Bogopane-Zulu, South African deputy minister of women, children and people with disabilities, the agency “vanished into thin air.”
In reading Bogopane-Zulu’s interview, it appears to me she tries to brush off any governmental wrongdoing and says they were “trying.” Well, that is not good enough for the deaf community worldwide. We don’t need “trying,” we need “doing”! That she reacts so blandly to a very serious communication breakdown is troubling.
Also troubling is the interview Jantjie gave to a radio station in Johannesburg, in which he says, “I’m currently a patient receiving treatment in schizophrenia.” Apparently, he started seeing angels when he stepped onto the stage to begin interpreting. He reportedly said in an interview Thursday with Associated Press, “I don’t know the attack of this problem … sometimes I get violent on that place. Sometimes I will see things chasing me.” But Jantjie has said, “I think that I’ve been a champion of sign language.”
This is, frankly, hogwash. For someone to claim mental illness and then claim he was signing properly when he was seeing “angels” is implausible. Would he not have been distracted by the angels? By the voices in his head? By images of violence he supposedly wants to inflict? Who was responsible for this tomfoolery? Neither the government nor the African National Congress (ANC) said they know who Jantjie is, even though he has interpreted two past ANC events. It seems like no one wants to take responsibility for this.
But another important point to consider is that apartheid ended about 20 years ago. There is still a lot of struggling going on in South Africa regarding equal rights for everyone, and the truth might be just that hiring a qualified SASL interpreter for Mandela’s memorial was not a priority. The priority was obviously Mandela, and there were certain time constraints that maybe the South African deaf community hasn’t considered. Which is not to excuse the South African government’s grave misjudgment at all but it shows South Africa still has a lot of work to do where people with disabilities are concerned.
Not only was Jantjie unqualified to interpret for a worldwide event but he was also potentially dangerous. For him to say he had the potential to commit violence while he was in close proximity to 90 heads of state also signifies a problem with vetting qualified SASL interpreters.
Does anyone see the irony of having someone like Jantjie interpret at the memorial of a man beloved the world over for his fight against apartheid and for equal human rights? That the South African deaf community was failed by its own government and caused them to be excluded is absolutely inexcusable. We deaf people suffer daily from limited access to well-qualified sign language interpreters and deal with exclusion from society at large every single day.
When I was growing up, I had no access to sign language interpreters until I attended university. Coming from an all hearing family, I was taught to speak from a young age. When my access broadened at university, my world became a lot more clear. I immersed myself in the local deaf community and quickly learned American Sign Language (ASL). My interpreters were professional and well qualified, which was required by university.
It was outside in the world, though, that I didn’t always have access to qualified interpreters. I would attend music concerts and book signings, that sort of thing, but the interpreters were not always knowledgeable about the music or the books, which meant they did not know the appropriate signs to use. Music venues would hire interpreters through outside interpreting agencies but that didn’t always guarantee a good interpreter as there are varying levels of skill and experience. It also depends on availability, and there can be a shortage of sign language interpreters.
This YouTube video is an excellent interpretation of the news of Nelson Mandela’s death. The interpreter is Dawn Jani Birley, and she is using International Sign, which is used in international settings for deaf events.
By Juana Poareo