The schizophrenic South African sign language interpreter who said he hallucinated during Nelson Mandela’s memorial on Tuesday reportedly has an extensive criminal record, including murder, rape and kidnapping charges.
According to South African news network eNCA, Thamsanqa Jantjie has “faced rape (1994), theft (1995), housebreaking (1997), malicious damage to property (1998), murder, attempted murder and kidnapping (2003) charges.”
Despite his record, the station said it was not clear whether Jantjie has ever served time in prison, as “many of the charges brought against him were dropped, allegedly because he was mentally unfit to stand trial.”
Even more bizarrely, it was not clear whether the murder charge against Jantjie from 2003 was ever properly resolved because the court file against him is “mysteriously empty,” eNCA reported.
Jantjie, who told the press on Thursday that he suffers from schizophrenia and has been violent in the past, stood next to US President Barack Obama and other world leaders and dignitaries during the ceremony honoring the late South African president and civil rights leader in Johannesburg.
His extensive reported criminal background raises additional questions about the security protocols in place at Mandela’s memorial that permitted Jantjie to stand feet from such high profile persons.
Earlier in the week, Jantjie was accused of faking sign interpretation during the memorial after a South African deaf group claimed the hand motions he made during the ceremony were nonsensical.
News of Jantjie’s criminal background emerged as South Africa’s highest profile official to date apologized for the man’s actions and presence on Tuesday. Arts and Culture Minister Paul Mashatile said Friday that reforms must be implemented to ensure such an incident wouldn’t happen again.
Mashatile stuck to Pretoria’s refusal to say who was responsible for hiring the sign interpreter for Tuesday’s memorial.
A South African deputy cabinet minister, Hendrietta Bogopane-Zulu, later held a news conference to announce that “a mistake happened” in the hiring of Jantjie.
Government officials have tried to track down the company that provided Thamsanqa Jantjie but the owners “have vanished into thin air,” said Deputy Minister of Women, Children and People with Disabilities Hendrietta Bogopane-Zulu.
She apologized to deaf people offended around the world for Jantjie’s incomprehensible signing, and said an investigation is under way to determine how Jantjie was hired and what vetting process, if any, he underwent for his security clearance.
The deputy minister said the translation company offered sub-standard services, the rate they paid the translator was far below the normal levels and that in order to maintain the interpreter’s concentration level, interpreters must be switched every 20 minutes. Jantjie was on the stage for the entire service that lasted more than three hours.
Jantjie said in a 45-minute interview with The Associated Press earlier this week that his hallucinations began while he was interpreting and that he tried not to panic because there were “armed policemen around me.” He added that he was once hospitalized in a mental health facility for more than one year and insisted that he was doing proper sign-language interpretation of the speeches of world leaders.
But he also apologized for a performance that has been dismissed by many sign-language experts as gibberish.
“I would like to tell everybody that if I’ve offended anyone, please, forgive me,” Jantjie said. “But what I was doing, I was doing what I believe is my calling, I was doing what I believe makes a difference.”
“What happened that day, I see angels come to the stadium … I start realizing that the problem is here. And the problem, I don’t know the attack of this problem, how will it comes. Sometimes I react violent on that place. Sometimes I will see things that chase me,” Jantjie said.
“I was in a very difficult position,” he added. “And remember those people, the president and everyone, they were armed, there was armed police around me. If I start panicking I’ll start being a problem. I have to deal with this in a manner so that I mustn’t embarrass my country.”
Asked how often he had become violent, he said “a lot” while declining to provide details.
Jantjie said he was due on the day of the ceremony to get a regular six-month mental health checkup to determine whether the medication he takes was working, whether it needed to be changed or whether he needed to be kept at a mental health facility for treatment.
He said he did not tell the company that contracted him for the event for about $85 that he was due for the checkup, but said the owner of SA Interpreters in Johannesburg was aware of his condition.
AP journalists who visited the address of the company that Jantjie provided found a different company there, whose managers said they knew nothing about SA Interpreters. A woman answered the phone at a number that Jantjie provided and said it was not for the company, and another phone number went to a voicemail that did not identify the person or company with the number.
Jantjie said he received one year of sign language interpretation at a school in Cape Town. He said he has previously interpreted at many events without anyone complaining.
The AP showed Jantjie video footage of him interpreting on stage at the Mandela memorial service. “I don’t remember any of this at all,” he said.