The sign language interpreter who stood a few feet from President Barack Obama and other world leaders during Nelson Mandela’s memorial service acknowledged Thursday being a schizophrenic with a history of violence.
Thamsanqa Jantjie told South African media he had a full-blown episode while he was standing on the stage during Tuesday’s memorial, seeing angels flying into the stadium and hearing voices.
He said he lost concentration and, as panic rose, kept gesturing.
“There was nothing I could do. I was alone in a very dangerous situation,” he said. “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.”
Asked how often he became violent during schizophrenic episodes, Jantjie said, “A lot.”
The episode during the memorial might have been brought on by the momentous occasion or his happiness to be there, Jantjie, 34, told the Star newspaper.
Members of South Africa’s deaf community had reacted angrily to Jantjie’s interpretation, which was broadcast live, saying his signing made no sense and he did not know the gesture for South Africa or thank you.
In interviews with South African journalists Thursday, Jantjie said he was deeply embarrassed and was terrified his children would see his humiliation.
“Life is unfair,” he said. “This illness is unfair. Anyone who doesn’t understand this illness will think that I’m just making this up.”
He admitted that sometimes he reacted violently during episodes and that he once spent a year and seven months in a psychiatric institution, according to The Associated Press.
Opposition leaders and critics called on the government to explain who hired Jantjie.
Hendrietta Bogopane-Zulu, deputy minister for women, children and people with disabilities, said a mistake had been made using Jantjie, and that the owners of SA Interpreters, the company that provided him, had “vanished into thin air.”
“It’s an interdepartmental responsibility,” she told AP. “We are trying to establish what happened.”