Mandela service sign language interpreter failed in 2012 with 'self-invented' gestures

A "fake" sign language interpreter who claimed to suffer an on-stage schizophrenic episode during Nelson Mandela’s memorial service failed to communicate a single word of a speech made by South African President Jacob Zuma more than a year ago.

The Deaf Federation of South Africa alleged that "100 percent of the information was omitted" by Thamsanqa Jantjie after he appeared at an event in January 2012. In a letter of complaint obtained by NBC News on Friday, the group described Jantjie's interpreting for Zuma as "a mockery" and claimed his gestures appeared "self-invented."

President Barack Obama delivers a speech next to sign language interpreter Thamsanqa Jantjie during the Nelson Mandela memorial service on Tuesday.Alexander Joe / AFP - Getty Images

Jantjie's abilities came into question after he was accused by deaf groups of performing meaningless gestures during Tuesday's service. Some groups suggested he was a "fake."

Following the event, the 34-year-old said he had a history of violent schizophrenic episodes and may have hallucinated that angels were flying into the stadium. He translated while standing three feet away from world leaders including President Barack Obama.

This week's event was organized by the South African government, but Jantjie had been used on previous occasions by the ruling African National Congress (ANC).

Both the party and government officials claimed they had no previous knowledge of disputes about the interpreter’s qualifications.

The letter obtained by NBC News showed the Deaf Federation of South Africa complained to ANC Secretary General Gwede Mantashe following the party's centenary celebrations last year.

The federation's national director Bruno Druchen wrote that Jantjie's sign language at that event was "meaningless" and "self-invented."

In the letter, which is dated Jan. 21, 2012, Druchen compares an extract from Zuma’s speech with what Jantjie actually conveyed through his sign language.

He quotes Zuma as saying:

"Deputy president of the ANC and officials of the African National Congress , National Executive Committee of the African National Congress, ANC women league , Youth League (crowd scream and applaud) African National Congress leadership of MK military . Leadership from SACP, SATU and SANCO.

Friends from all over Africa and the world, comrades and compatriots, the ANC is the oldest liberation movement on the African continent is 100 years old today. We have come from all corners of South Africa , Africa and the World."

Druchen then translates the sign language Jantjie was using on stage to convey Zuma's words (some of his corresponding hand movements are in brackets):

"All heart (ten hand move forward) which had no meaning, together (hand move back to the heart) then the sign for C is used. The hands go down to side and then point left with his right hand (no meaning) sign for beg is used repeatedly and the sign is placed on different levels in front of torso with a rocking movement. Both hands in claw shape in the air with movement with no meaning , then again the sign for beg, tree and the help sign and then the hands go forward indicating future."

Druchen goes on to say that the interpreter did not use facial expressions, a crucial part of any form of sign language, and describes his performance as a "mime."

"The signs used are not recognized by the deaf community in South Africa...the interpreter is unknown to the deaf community," he said.

ANC spokesman Jackson Mthembu said he has no knowledge of the complaint ever being made. He said his party is investigating the incident and reviewing its hiring and vetting procedures.

An invoice seen by NBC News suggested that the ANC employed Jantjie on at least one more occasion, in June this year.

The South African government has launched an investigation into the incident.

According to Jantjie, he was paid a $85 day rate for appearing at the Mandela memorial.

On Thursday, South African government minister Hendrietta Bogopane-Zulu pointed out that most qualified sign language interpreters charge $125 to $165 per hour and speculated that a junior official might have opted for the cheapest quote.