A few days ago, when the story of the “fake interpreter” broke in the South African media, the ANC denied any knowledge of who he was and how he got to be on the podium, signing while world leader after world leader gave inane speeches intended to tell the world that “Yes, I more than anyone, I was close to Madiba; we had dinner together once, and he paid special attention to me. Furthermore, his saintliness is the reason why I, too, should be close to the same beatification treatment.” (Yes, Drone President, I’m looking at you.) That would have been a tough job for any veteran of sign language, who must not only convey the words, but also the emotional impact and context through a mixture of physical movements and psychological engagement with both speaker and audience. It is translation—and like translation between any two languages, it has all the attendant complexities of signs never adequately meeting the requirements of the signifier—but with an added layer of physicality essential to convey the speaker’s intended tone.
When I saw Thamsanqa Jantjie, the sign interpreter, animatedly engaged in conveying Obama’s much touted speech, I, like millions of others who cannot speak sign language, read his gestures as authentic, partly because I am ignorant, but also because his performance read “real.” When I saw, on my South African friend’s Facebook page, that the same interpreter had already worked at the ANC’s centenary celebrations, I thought that the ANC’s strategy—deny first, be accountable only if forced when faced with yet another scandal—was clearly not going to last as a viable excuse. Pretending that there was “no trace” of this man was a terrible charade—when any idiot with an Internet connection could track his presence to other events. I thought, surely, someone had complained before, especially since South African has a deaf Member of Parliament—Wilma Newhoudt-Druchen. In fact, it turns out that she had tweeted, during the memorial: “ANC-linked interpreter on the stage with dep president of ANC is signing rubbish. He cannot sign. Please get him off.”
Pretending that there was “no trace” of this man was a terrible charade—when any idiot with an Internet connection could track his presence to other events. And all they needed to do was ask Luthuli House to figure out how this man got to be there, at one of the most publicised events of the century. Besides that, hearing impaired persons had made complaints—only no one paid attention, leading to charges (mostly by white hearing impaired people, who are historically privileged enough in a place like South Africa to have access to a full education in sign language, and to subsequently register a complaint) about how marginalised they are in South Africa.
The whole thing became part of the farce that this supposedly dignified final farewell to Nelson Mandela was supposed to be—along with world leaders who acted like bored American teenagers taking selfies at funerals. It was also fast becoming a significant part of the west’s two-pronged narrative about Banana Republic Dystopia—a narrative shared on News24 comment sections and some suburban enclaves of South Africa. This time, the story wasn’t about how banana republics are filled with bloodthirsty savages who destroy all goodness and western civ, but about how banana republics are ridiculous and incompetent—so much so that even when given or trained to use tools invented by white people (like democracy and sign language), the whole thing will go pear-shaped. This narrative was not aided by Hendrietta Bogopane-Zulu, Deputy Minister of Women, Children, and People with Disabilities (yes, such a ministry that places fully grown women and those with physical disabilities with babies exists), who explained everything away by saying that this was first time she had received complaints about the interpreter. She added, “I don’t think it would be accurate for me to stand here and say we are embarrassed” and “A mistake happened while we were trying…. We try to improve.”
Enter Fake Sign Interpreter, stage left. I watched and re-watched him in inevitable spoofs (in one gif, he’s making balloon animals next to Obama – and bad balloon animals at that). In another place, where he signs a Drake song, I thought that he was just an incredible performance artist—with the confidence that comes from having played a part for so long and so well that he wilfully sprouts gonads. People have been known to do that before—and those men (and a few women) he accompanied on the podium are the first people who might be able to identify with the performative nature of power on stage: how it gets away from them, a red hot race car driven ever faster by expectation, and steered only by the knowledge that if they do not continue, there will be a fiery crash. But often, that crash comes because the speed at which the performance artist finds himself being propelled is too fast to steer.
Like many around the world, I laughed about this with my AIAC comrades. We were at an incredible memorial service at Riverside Church in Harlem on Wednesday—a memorial that actually did the job of honoring Mandela without spotlighting the fame of the orators chosen to speak about him. Afterwards, perhaps unable or incompetent to deal with how we were all moved and humbled by this church—and this city’s long commitment to South Africa’s liberation struggle—we shouted jokes about Fake Interpreter in the sub zero wind, gusting in from the steel grey of the Hudson river. Mostly, the punchlines were knowing winks at the very dystopia that banana republics are prone to veer towards: (a) The Good Reasons/Capitalist Might Care but We Have Greater Obligations punchline: “Come on man, he has to eat. He has children who has to eat.” Then there was (b) The Family Ties Reason: “I know how he got that job. He’s someone’s cousin” (met with mock cries of “That’s RA-cist!”).
Our silly joking was a way to laugh off the runaway train that stories of this nature take—becoming bigger and bigger, till the ridiculous turns into something more sinister, and truly threatening. Stories with speed like this never stop at the slip-and-fall-banana-peel-banana-republic punchline. They inevitably go to the Dark Continent place. And of course, it did. Last night, revelations that Fake Interpreter was schizophrenic, and perhaps taking medication. Inevitably, the American pundits made this about Us. And the danger that Our Great Leader was put in, having to stand next to a dangerous fake. This storyline pitted the authenticity of the West (never mind that half the people in the newsroom/in the US hate Obama and think he’s incompetent) against the danger of the shifting, untrustworthy, incompetency of the Dark Continent under black rule—especially now that the Honorary White figure of Mandela was gone. One interviewer tried to get the Fake Interpreter to do some sign language on camera (they’d ferreted him out). He sat on the sofa, unperturbed, with his child as a support prop next to him, and replied, “Let’s be realistic.”
Today, I woke to this: Fake Interpreter may have attempted to kill someone. In fact, he’s been accused of rape, theft, and a slew of crimes. He was acquitted on charges of rape, but convicted of theft. He’s heavily medicated, and spent time at the Sterkfontein Psychiatric Hospital. Reports Karyn Maughan of eNCA:
[In] the 2003 murder, attempted murder and kidnapping case against Jantjie and other people, was referred to the South Gauteng High Court in 2004. It was finalised in November 2006, but the court file for the case is empty.
Jantjie has refused to comment on what happened to the case – and eNCA is unable to confirm claims that it was dropped because he was declared mentally unfit to stand trial. The National Prosecuting Authority says it can’t confirm or deny the existence of charges against Jantjie.
I don’t know how this will end. But clearly, Jantjie’s story—and life—will have nowhere but the darkest spaces to go now. He will become a chapter in that book of Third World infamy, where some local figure—who has thus far got by in the interstices of enormous socio-political shifts—suddenly finds themselves in the spotlight when the shadow of a powerful Western figure—someone who functions as a “civilized” double—falls on their Othered selves, revealing their shortcomings. That such figures get caught up in Western (and local) media frenzies, become distorted beyond recognition in the process and end up being ciphers for the entire system’s failings is inevitable.