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The eloquence of the fake signing man

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.


  • During the day Sarah Britten is a communication strategist; by night she writes books and blog entries. And sometimes paints. With lipstick. It helps to have insomnia.


  1. Edwin Matlapeng Edwin Matlapeng 13 December 2013

    good points. this is a serious breach of security and I am scared to imagine what would have happened if Thami attacked one of the speakers.It could have been disastrous.
    On the other hand, who is his employer? How does it happen now that the employee has to take flak for his employer? We have been told he works for a company of interpreters who get work from or are contracted to Government. Are they certified to do the work? Do they have a Tax Clearance and Valid BEE Certificate? Who are the owners of this company? Who are on the executive? Quite mundane research if you ask me! Is there fronting in their business? I would have liked the media to also shed some light in that department for us the public to get a more balanced perspective on this.
    Thanking you in advance.

  2. Peter Terry Peter Terry 13 December 2013

    Excellent! Nail whacked firmly on head!

  3. ursanegro (@ursanegro) ursanegro (@ursanegro) 13 December 2013

    “Do they have a Tax Clearance and Valid BEE Certificate?”

    that’s part of the problem actually.

    because i have nothing better to do, i’ve watched the south african news in all 11 languages, on all the south african networks, and i’ve never seen a black interpreter doing english [or afrikaans, for that matter] to sign language.

    while i’m sure that there are anglophone black people with a high signing standard, they’re probably locked up in companies at high enough pay to keep them from doing side gigs.

    the cynic in me – and i’ve said this elsewhere – is that the government/anc [same thing, really] wanted a black person for this gig. upon seeing that there weren’t any black english-language signers at pravda [maybe there are, but like i said, i haven’t seen any], they went looking for black people who could sign.

    one of the excuses put out there for his crap signing was that “the english was too much”. of all of the excuses out there, this one is by far the most plausible, given how english is taught in most of the country. [even at my kid’s posh afrikaans-medium school, the english instruction was dreadful]

  4. RP RP 13 December 2013

    Although the article sums up the overall situation in SA perfectly, there is a more sinister side to this. Anywhere in the world at important functions, security is paramount. How did our much vaunted Security Apparatus, so desperate to keep “State Secrets” from the public, allow someone with such a dodgy background near the podium. This is not to touch upon his ability in signing. State Security Minister Siyabonga Cwele surely has a lot to answer for. Not that any of us need hold our breath, he will no doubt not concern himself with such “trivialities”!

  5. Peter Peter 13 December 2013

    Sarah, you are so right – it said it all. Thank you.

  6. Katleho Lenong Katleho Lenong 13 December 2013

    Valid points, I agree that he exposed a glaring bureaucratic problem we face in South Africa, but our reaction to this tale of Mr Jantjie is a clear indication as to why such WILL continue to happen, as a ‘democratic’ country, why are we (wrongly) crucifying this man on all levels of social media instead of asking questions of the government? Who is his employer? I trust that for occasions such as Madiba’s memorial service, any procured services need to undergo due diligence (stating the obvious). Who was tasked the job of finding a suitable sign language interpreter? Who recommended him? was he not interviewed before this, if so? Where were the ‘professional sign language analysts’ during the procurement process? Who is his employer? (This was not his first gig for the government)… Can we be more objective? We were quick to make this man a scapegoat.

  7. AliceInWonderland AliceInWonderland 13 December 2013


  8. Jaded Jaded 13 December 2013

    Nailed it.

  9. Patrick Patrick 13 December 2013

    Nice article, Sarah.

    @ Edwin Matlapeng: it’s important to note that the ANC had been notified by a representative of Deaf SA more than a year ago, that this man is a fraud. They chose to ignore the caution and carried on using him. He has become a regular fixture at ANC gatherings. However, because those previous gatherings never warranted the kind of audience that Mandela’s memorial service did, he went largely unnoticed.

  10. Niki Moore Niki Moore 13 December 2013

    Thank you Sarah, brilliantly expressed, and really a succinct summary of everything that is wrong. what a pity that the people who really should get this wake-up call – the bureaucrats and carpetbaggers – won’t see it.

  11. Sydney Sydney 13 December 2013

    Well written Sarah. Do you know what the funniest response to the whole mess is, The Deputy Minister of Everybody but Men, Henrietta Bogopane-Zulu said on radio that Thami “has many deaf friends”, and she was dead serious. I mean really, this beats the well-worn “some of friends are black/white/Jewish” qualification that people use when they’ve been caught out being prejudiced.

    So if some of “my friends are Italian” I can apply to interpret for President’s Italian visitors.

    You are right Sarah, no accountability. I would be very reluctant to condemn Thami along with the people who appointed him, a bin full of meds is sign enough for me, the men has a condition and somebody should have picked it up, but our security service is still caught up security issues somewhere on a compound in KZN, LOL.

  12. Charlotte Charlotte 13 December 2013

    @Sarah. Humour, pathos, shock and disgrace in one unbelievable mix.
    One of your best articles yet.
    And unlike the interpreter, how true your words:
    “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.

    Whoever decided to employ Mr Jantjie should be fired on the spot.
    Actually, whoever decided that it was fine for the Gupta guests to land …
    and whoever sanctioned the release of Schabier Shaik and Selelbi and – but you get the picture…

    One is curious to know, though, how much Mr. Jantjies was paid to make us the laughing stock of the world.
    I think it was said in a radio interview that he was hired because he was ‘the cheapest.’

  13. Tracy Bax Tracy Bax 13 December 2013

    It also highlights how mental health is considered a luxury most can’t afford. The stigma attached to it is enormous. It shows citizens unable to rely on social welfare. We are very ‘alone’ in Africa. Again it is about survival of the fittest. Perhaps this is the mentality that causes many leaders to cling onto power and ‘enjoy’ the system while they can? I will say that at least we are having this discussion in an open forum so there is a lot to be said for free press (for now) and our democracy. Many countries don’t enjoy this privilege. Let’s take what good we can for now!

  14. Jerome Jerome 14 December 2013

    Yeah, you nailed it.

    What we saw was the essence of belief of a people who for many years observed the exterior appearance of a society, without understanding that that appearance is not the actual society.

    The belief that all that is necessary for somebody to perform a function is the outward appearance of a person performing that function.

    That, for instance, if you want an engineer, you give somebody a house, a car, an office, a desk, and you call him an engineer.

    And so we descended into the terrible absurdity of this South Africa we are living in.

    We are now all waiting for Godot.

  15. Fanta K Fanta K 14 December 2013

    To take an unfortunate incident like this and then generalize that government must be equally incompetent is just crazy talk.

    The company that hired him to interpret continuously for over 4 straight hours is a mistake in an otherwise memorial memorial that hosted a large sometimes unruly crowd. Why do people like you lack the least bit of sympathy for this guy with a known mental condition? How would Madiba have treated Thamsanqa Jantjie?

    Like all conservative news media who never fail to bring up security risks every time they want to stir up fear or sensationalize selfies to detract from Obama’s great eulogy of Mandela, our local media once again fixates on the booing of Zuma, which btw was hardly mentioned in international media.

    Creating unnecessary hysteria and fear-mongering over genuine mistakes during this world event to engage in your petty politics before our upcoming election is truly pathetic and brings out the ugliness in human nature at a time when our nation is still grieving our loss. This blog goes against the very values, like compassion and forgiveness, that Mandela stood for.

  16. Dylan Macdonald Dylan Macdonald 14 December 2013

    Our own jester in the African praise singer tradition. What a wonderful counterpoint to all those pompous politicians!

  17. April April 14 December 2013

    Sadly, SA isn’t the only place this happens. Every day there are minimally qualified sign language interpreters (uncertified) working in the United States as well.

    I think it’s time we require universally required certification for a job with the responsibility of being a lifeline for communication in education, health, law, etc.

  18. Paul S Paul S 15 December 2013

    The whole sorry scenario then reinforced by the crowd booing No.1 at what was likely the most focused-on world event of the century. Things don’t get more eloquent than that…A huge dose of reality for the ailing patient that is SA.

  19. Cam Cameron Cam Cameron 15 December 2013

    The fact that a psychotic with violent tendencies bluffed his way to within a stab’s length of several V V I Ps (and that the ANC’s suposedly-vigilant “security cluster” sleepwalkingly signed it all off) has made South Africa a global joke. It spectacularly confirms every prejudice by gift-wrapping and hand-delivering to them the “I told you so” they knew was coming. The booing of the dullard Zuma merely gilded the lily.

  20. nguni nguni 15 December 2013

    Eloquently summarised Sarah, thank you. He really did say so much by saying nothing.
    Equally depressing is the thought that this guy has been doing this for years, but never got around to actually learning to do it properly! Took a few tips from his deaf friends no doubt, and that was it.

  21. nguni nguni 15 December 2013

    @ xsanga
    Get that big chip off your shoulder and just acknowledge that this incident was very, very, bad for our country before looking for racism as an excuse for this guy. Don’t you see this is part of the problem? i n c o m p e t e n c e black or white should not be accepted, no excuses.

  22. Tom Evans Tom Evans 16 December 2013

    Your second last paragraph sums it up perfectly – “Thamsanqa Jantjie said more about the state of South Africa’s current rulers than all the analysts and spin doctors ever could”. Well written Sarah.

  23. tomasreal tomasreal 17 December 2013

    Perhaps the angles were real and the message that was being shown is ,Misunderstanding rules the “world”.

  24. Hameeda Hameeda 17 December 2013

    Brilliant take on the situation.

    Thanks Sarah

  25. Bond Bond 17 December 2013

    Amazing–I know she was talking about the interpreter, but she could have just as well been talking about the United States and Barack Obama. Kudos for correctly spelling “cojones”, BTW.

  26. David Thomas David Thomas 17 December 2013

    Maybe all political speeches should be interpreted by fake language to more appropriately convey the message.

  27. Graham Graham 18 December 2013

    Sorry, I find it hard to have pity for his fellow. If you accept a job you know you cannot perform, don’t be upset when you are found to be a fraud.

  28. francois williams francois williams 18 December 2013

    Uh…you said: “he appearance of something becomes more important than the substance of it. ”

    Is that not the whole basis of capitalism and Western so called popular culture?
    In SA we are desperate to copy it all…of course you will have this kind of thing happening…all the time…those are the examples we see all the time from the West.
    In USA, many more jails are built than schools because anyone can open a private jail..but jails need customers too…and so the police, the judiciary, the government, all collude to put people away, specially the poor, and the weak…the US have 7 million people in the prison industrial complex…25% of the world jail population…then we have not even started on the Western banksters yet…or the education racket, and many more!! This guy is absolutely a tiny fish, and SA is a paragon of virtues compared to anywhere in the WHITE Western world…FACTS!

  29. Karlito Karlito 20 December 2013

    @Alice: all the article you linked from Schutte proves, is that some people put a racial spin on everything that is inconvenient to their view point. Funny how true government incompetency (irrespective of race) simply cannot be accepted no matter how glaring the facts are. This is not food for thought…It is food for further hate and discord..

  30. Karlito Karlito 20 December 2013

    @Graham: I agree with you in so far that there is something very wrong in the world and how we deal with crime, it’s origins and possible rehabilitation. There is definitely big money involved in some countries. But it’s a world phenomena. Please do some research on jails and incarceration of other countries and cultures and get back to us. It’s really not just a white vs other cultures issue.
    The whole world is governed by greed (yes, the standard colonial countries being right at the top agreed), but this sickness transcends race and culture, and only United can we possibly stand against it.

  31. Zeph Zeph 23 December 2013

    And the Government shouted, “Get him to Sterkfontein quicky before he signs us into damnation again!”

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