I won’t lie. A lot of this is bloody funny (read some of the best jokes about it here). The fake sign language interpreter is now a cultural phenomenon, featuring on major US comedy shows and catalysing a new meme.
And yet, at the heart of this, is a terrible sadness. I felt tremendous pity for Thamsanqa Jantjie as I watched him interviewed by Karyn Maughan on eNews. Here was a man cornered, desperate: a man who could see his world falling apart in front of his eyes.
A modern Walter Mitty, he was holding on for all he was worth to his sense of self. I am a man, he said. I am a provider. His wife brought out a blue dustbin bag filled with medication. She looked resigned.
Chutzpah, I had first thought. It turns out that all you need to get past the CIA and an entire phalanx of men straight out of The Matrix is magnificent incompetence. To fake it till you make it next to the leader of the hypocritically free world takes cojones. “I am proud to be South African” said Anton Taylor of Jozi shore.
But the story is so much more complicated. A mentally unstable man with a history of violent outbursts stood a metre away from the most powerful leaders in the world and passed himself off as an interpreter. This was Mr Bean goes to the UN — only it was very serious.
This is what he said. As it turned out, his gibberish spoke volumes.
In South Africa, the signing man told the world, you don’t actually have to know what you are doing in order to get a job. You don’t have to have any ability whatsoever, as long as it looks, to most, as though you can go through the motions — whether you are a teacher, a police officer, a bureaucrat, a government official or (as some have suggested) a state president.
There are those who see through you and complain, but they are ignored. Ours is not a culture of accountability. So one gig leads to the next. You’ve done it before so you get to do it again, because everyone in a position of power agrees that the emperor’s new threads are stylish. You stand there and tell us that the appearance of something becomes more important than the substance of it. Your obvious inability to do your job does not prevent you from getting ahead, until you reach the most prominent stage in the world, and then pretending suddenly isn’t enough. Too many people noticed — too many people who couldn’t just be dismissed because of their politics or race, which is how criticism is normally dealt with.
Thamsanqa discovered that eventually, somebody will see what you are doing, and call you out on it, and there will be nowhere to run. And you will be blamed, and the decision makers who allowed a smaller lie to metastasize into this awful mess will escape censure. Because in South Africa, nobody is ever held responsible — unless you’re low enough down the food chain and lack political connections. Then it’s all your fault.
In his desperate attempts to maintain a facade of functionality in front of the world, as he heard voices and saw angels, Thamsanqa Jantjie said more about the state of South Africa’s current rulers than all the analysts and spin doctors ever could.
He might not have been able to express a coherent word, but the fake signing man turned out to be remarkably eloquent.