Violent sign language interpreter’s access to Obama triggers investigation – Video

Violent sign language interpreter’s access to Obama triggers investigation

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The “fake” sign language interpreter who stood mere feet from several world leaders during Nelson Mandela’s memorial says he suffered a schizophrenic episode on the stage. NBC’s Ron Allen reports.

By Alexander Smith, NBC News contributor

The vetting of a sign language interpreter who got within three feet of world leaders including President Barack Obama during Nelson Mandela’s memorial was being investigated Thursday after organizers admitted they were unaware of his violent history of schizophrenic episodes.

Thamsanqa Jantjie, 34, was accused of gesticulating gibberish during Tuesday’s service. Members of the deaf community said his movements did not resemble any recognized form of sign language and some groups accused him of being a “fake.”

Jantjie told NBC News that he is currently receiving treatment for schizophrenia and had been violent in the past. He said he started hearing voices in his head during the Mandela event and hallucinated visions of angels flying into the stadium.

Asked by The Associated Press how often he had become violent in the past, he said “a lot,” but he declined to provide details.

Tsvangirayi Mukwazhi / AP

Sign language interpreter Thamsanqa Jantjie told The Associated Press that he saw “angels” during a possible schizophrenic episode while appearing at the Nelson Mandela memorial and said he had been violent in the past.

“There was nothing I could do. I was alone in a very dangerous situation,” he said in a separate interview with Johannesburg’s Star newspaper. “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.”

The South African government said at a press conference Thursday that “a mistake was made,” adding that officials were “trying to establish what happened with the sign language interpreter.”

Hendrietta Bogopane-Zulu, the South African deputy minister for women, children and persons with disability, said that the government was investigating the whether the interpreter had been vetted before the memorial.

“I do not think he was just picked up off the street, he was from a school for the deaf,” Bogopane-Zulu added. “Whoever saw him being able to communicate with his deaf peers, with his deaf friends, understood that he can speak sign language. [But] he could not translate. English was a bit too much for him…he became overwhelmed.”

Jackson Mthembu, a spokesman for the ruling National African Congress party, told NBC News Thursday that he was concerned that Jantjie’s qualifications or medical history had apparently not been taken into account before he was given close access to world leaders at the government-organized event.

“We are not aware that he was being treated for [schizophrenia]. He did not disclose it. That is another thing that is concerning to use because we are having this information for the first time,” Mthembu said. “This man was close to many presidents, including our own. We are worried about when we have procured him for activities for our own services. That is what we are concerned about.”

When asked about the incident during a briefing Thursday, White House Press Secretary Jay Carney said that President Obama was “not concerned” at any point during the trip.

He said the U.S. Secret Service had “worked very hard on this trip, which came about on short notice, as they always do when it comes to the president’s security,” before adding: “Beyond that, I would refer you to the government of South Africa or the Secret Service.”

NBC News security analyst James Cavanaugh said it was troubling that there were so many questions about a person who had been granted face-to-face access to world leaders.


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