The sign language used by interpreter Thamsanqa Jantjie at Nelson Mandela’s memorial service was an unintelligible mess. His hands swooped and flapped as he made up signs. He said he was experiencing a sudden attack of schizophrenia.
But his message was clear: Maybe Americans shouldn’t feel frustrated by all the checks they undergo when visiting events with mass audiences.
As he signed, Jantjie, 34, stood next to world dignitaries including President Obama. Where, Americans ask, were the safeguards to prevent a seemingly mentally unfit individual from being within arm’s reach of world leaders?
The day after the service, it was revealed that Jantjie had been arrested five times since the mid-1990s, accused of murder, rape, theft and malicious damage to property. He had avoided jail time by turning to his mental illness.
The Mandela service could have been a disaster.
There have been numerous interpretations of the event by pundits. Some want to know why captions were used on large TV screens to pass along the scripted comments by the speakers. Others question the need for interpreters — other than to make those who do not understand sign language feel good about themselves. Or does it reflect a troubled, corrupt South African government?
But this incident should not be an indictment against deaf people. Far from it.
This unfortunate event happened because security personnel made assumptions. Jantijie appeared to be a qualified interpreter hired by the African National Congress.
Even in America, most event organizers might do the same and trust a coordinating agency with providing support staff. That approach doesn’t work anymore. Names have to be checked and rechecked. That is a sign of the times.
Americans have slowly become accustomed to searches at sporting events, political rallies and speeches by top leaders.
There were many influential leaders gathered to honor the life of Nelson Mandela. It isn’t too much to ask other countries to secure the safety of foreign leaders.
The (Anderson, Ind.) Herald Bulletin