When Thamsanqa Jantjie first burst onto the international scene he caused a media frenzy. A fraudulent sign language interpreter who swindled his way into Mandela’s funeral and rubbed shoulders with world leaders in an event that was at the center of the world stage – newsroom high fives all round. Even more tantalizing were the stories that later emerged: multiple criminal charges of robbery, assault and rape; and apparent schizophrenia. Once the string of public apologies and bizarre interviews had died down, it seemed that Jantjie would be forgotten forever, his memory relegated to the dust heap of history. Until this week that is. An Israeli startup called LiveLens pulled Jantjie out of psychiatric care and employed him to appear in a bizarre new advert for their mobile app.
In the advert, Jantjie introduces himself as “Thamsanqa Jantjie from Nelson Mandela’s funeral” while a female voice over translates his fake sign language. When he gives a scripted apology, the voice translates him as saying “Me famous celebrity.” When he says, “Now I want to make it up to the whole world,” it’s translated as “Now I do campaigns for money.” In this unfunny self-reflexive joke, the ad agency plays up the fact that Jantjie is exploiting his notoriety for financial gain. However it fails to highlight LiveLens’ exploitation of a mentally ill person for money. Here, watch for yourself:
How did they get Jantjie to do the ad? According to the American network NBC, a “Zulu-speaking journalist” was sent to the psychiatric hospital where Jantjie has been since December. The journalist swindled the hospital staff into believing that Jantjie had to be released for a “family event.” Weirder than that, the Israeli company not only failed to see anything morally questionable about sneaking a mentally ill person out of hospital to shoot a commercial, they actually see this as something positive. Marketing manager Shefi Shaked told NBC: “At the end of the day, a schizophrenic guy got paid and did a nice campaign … We see it as sort of a sad story with a happy ending.” Say whaaat!?
Don’t get me wrong – I found Jantjie’s appearance and performance at Nelson Mandela’s funeral hilarious. I loved the parodies and the mashups, like the version of him fake signing to a Drake song and the obligatory Saturday Night Live skit. It was some much needed comic relief during a moment of global grief. However, Jantjie’s act deprived deaf people around the world from participating in the memorial of the most important leader of our time. Don’t get it twisted. Jantjie should not be allowed to profit from his criminal trespasses, and neither should a commercial entity profit from him. Their ad is nothing short of the worst kind of minstrelsy, literally making a black man dance on camera for his money (watch to the end of the video – if you can). This ad revels in the African male stereotype: corrupt, incompetent and dancing their way to the bank.
When Jantjie first entered the world stage, Slovenian philosopher Slavok Zizek wrote in The Guardian that Jantjie’s “fake” sign language authentically reflected the meaninglessness of the self-serving dignitaries’ speeches at Mandela’s memorial. Jantjie “translated them into what they effectively were: nonsense.” In this sense, what does Jantjie’s LiveLens episode translate about the way the world works? In neoliberal global capitalism, anything can be monetized, even the criminal exploits of a marginal schizophrenic. As long as we find humor in Jantjie’s extended 15 minutes, he will continue to exploit and be exploited. It’s time to stop laughing.