JOHANNESBURG — A South African sign language interpreter accused of gesticulating gibberish during a memorial to Nelson Mandela defended his "champion" performance Thursday, but said he may have suffered a schizophrenic episode while on stage.
The interpreter, identified as 34-year-old Thamsanqa Jantjie, told Johannesburg's Star newspaper he started hearing voices in his head and hallucinating, resulting in gestures that made no sense to outraged deaf people around the world.
"There was nothing I could do. I was alone in a very dangerous situation. 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," he told the paper.
He did not know what triggered the attack, he added, saying he took medication for his schizophrenia.
Millions of TV viewers saw Jantjie interpreting Tuesday at the Mandela memorial attended by leaders from around the world, but South Africa's leading deaf association on Wednesday denounced him as a fake, saying he was inventing signs.
However, in a radio interview, Jantjie said he was happy with his performance at the memorial to the anti-apartheid hero, who died a week ago at age 95.
"Absolutely, absolutely. I think that I've been a champion of sign language," he told Talk Radio 702.
The controversy has overshadowed South Africa's 10-day farewell to Mandela, whose remains were lying in state for a second day Thursday at the Union Buildings in Pretoria, where he was sworn in as the nation's first black president in 1994.
Revelations about Jantjie's unconventional gestures — experts said he did not know even basic signs such as "thank you" or "Mandela" — sparked a hunt for the mystery signer on Wednesday.
The government, which was in charge of the mass memorial, said it had no idea who he was, as did the ruling African National Congress (ANC), even though footage from two large ANC events last year showed him signing on stage next to President Jacob Zuma.
Jantjie said he worked for a company called SA Interpreters, which had been hired by the ANC for Tuesday's ceremony at Johannesburg's 95,000-seat Soccer City stadium.
"Absolutely. That's what happened," he told the radio station.
The death of Nobel peace laureate Mandela triggered an outpouring of grief and emotion — as well as celebration and thanksgiving — among his 53 million countrymen and millions more around the world.
His body will lie in state for a third day on Friday before being flown to the Eastern Cape, where it will be buried on Sunday at his ancestral home in Qunu, 700 km (450 miles) south of Johannesburg.
'Fake' sign language interpreter at Nelson Mandela memorial provokes anger
First published December 11 2013, 11:46 PM