Mandela’s Funeral Interpreter: An accidental Disability Advocate?

Mandela Funeral Interpreter

By now we have all heard of  Thamsanqa Tjantjie a.k.a. the “fake interpreter” at the Mandela memorial event that earned himself an overnight celebrity status, albeit for all the wrong reasons.

Following his “ gibberish interpreting”, Tjantjie has been dubbed a criminal, an embarrassment, a fraud and a security threat. He has since revealed that he struggles with schizophrenia and had an attack while on duty. Other reports indicate that he is not a certified interpreter and point to previous complaints having been made against him. Meanwhile his employers have distanced themselves from him; while to the rest of us he bears the brunt of our anger and ridicule.

I don’t know what his real story is, but if we are to give credence to his relationship with schizophrenia, whether it is manufactured or real, then his story illuminates important yet invisible realities in our society. The challenges faced by people with disabilities in general and mental disorders in particular.

Granted, Tjantjie’s stunts embarrassed us and robbed the deaf community out of participating in a historic event. Secondly, this incident may have served to further entrench the stereotypes we have about people with mental disabilities. However, before we lock this “crook” in jail or quarantine this “lunatic” in an asylum and obliterate him from our public platforms and consciousness, lets take a moment to sift through the gibberish and listen to what it tells us about those amongst us whose voices and actions we cant hear or understand.

Whereas he provided a comic relief to a somber event (also known as after-tears in SA), the fake interpreter also brought the disability agenda back to the table. And it was only befitting that the table was set upon a world stage where he stood side by side with world leaders and accidentally advocated for a people we have secluded, muffled, chained and drugged. These are the people who get lost in translation when we proclaim the ethos of building of a non-racial and non-sexist society. We forget that it also needs to be an inclusive and accessible society for all.

The challenges faced by people with disabilities often fare worse than Apartheid itself, for theirs is an unending struggle for equality and recognition. Theirs is a struggle to find access on every public platform and facet of society. Their agenda remains at the bottom of our priorities, an afterthought when everyone has had their share of freedoms and rights.

It is not surprising that we reacted to the “creepy interpreter” with anger, fear and laughter. This exposes a reality of how we respond to “differently abled” people on a daily basis, especially those with mental disorders. Our lack of understanding enjoins us to construct disturbing stereotypes about them and compels us to remove them from our sight. These are the friends and family members we seldom talk about. The ones we pretend don’t exist. The ones we are ashamed of. The ones we make jokes about while failing to admit to ourselves that sometimes we also lose sight of reality and perceive the world in very strange and paranoid ways whilst we secretly pop a pill or drown ourselves with substances to stay “sane.”

Nelson Mandela and other gallant men of our times have fought a good fight against injustices meted out to the human family. However, the responsibility to advance and protect the cause of differently-abled people lies in our individual and collective hands. We live in a world that can drive anyone crazy; it does not take much to send any of us over the edge. On any given day, we all stand a chance to encounter a life-altering event that can render us “disabled”.

We need to create platforms and access for equal participation for the most marginalized and misunderstood members of our society. And while we are all out to learn our second and third languages, it would be great if we can also learn basic sign language skills. It is the first step towards ensuring inclusion for all…unless we want another “Fake Interpreter” to speak for us.

pearl m


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