JOHANNESBURG – South Africa’s government was confronted Friday with a new and chilling allegation about the bogus sign language interpreter at Nelson Mandela’s memorial: He was reportedly accused of murder 10 years ago.
Officials said they were investigating the revelation by the national eNCA TV news station. But they were unable, or unwilling, to explain why a man who says he is schizophrenic with violent tendencies was allowed to get within arm’s length of President Barack Obama and other world leaders.
Investigators probing Thamsanqa Jantjie “will compile a comprehensive report,” said Phumla Williams, the top government spokeswoman. But she did not say how long the investigation would take and insisted details would not be released until it was completed.
An Associated Press reporter found Jantjie at a makeshift bar owned by his cousin on the outskirts of Soweto Friday. Asked about the murder allegation, Jantjie turned and walked away without saying anything.
A day earlier, he told the AP that he had been violent “a lot” in the past, has schizophrenia and hallucinated during the Mandela memorial that angels were descending into the stadium. He also apologized for his performance but defended his interpreting as “the best in the world.”
His assertion was ridiculed by deaf advocates who said he didn’t know how to sign “Mandela” or “Thank you.”
The outcome of the reported murder case that eNCA said dated from 2003 was unclear, and the television report did not disclose any details.
The fiasco surrounding the use of Jantjie to provide sign language translation before a worldwide television audience has turned into an international embarrassment for South Africa, whose ruling party, the African National Congress, and president, Jacob Zuma, have already lost popularity because of corruption scandals and other public grievances.
The U.S. assistant secretary of state for African affairs, Linda Thomas-Greenfield, said Friday that “we’re all very upset” about Jantjie, who was just 3 feet from Obama at the memorial service for Mandela, who died Dec. 5 at 95.
Thomas-Greenfield told reporters in Kenya that U.S. officials are concerned about security and how Jantjie could have gotten so close to world leaders. She said officials were also dismayed because people watching around the world who needed sign language weren’t able to understand what was said at the ceremony. She called the problem “extraordinarily sad.”