Gabriel Banda Peace Notes, 09: Mandela Funeral Signer, hallucination or gifted?

Nelson Mandela Funeral Signer, Fake or Saint? A defense.


Gabriel C Banda

“While I was working, I had a breakdown when I see angels come from sky to the ground,” Thamsanqa Jantjie explained on BBC World News.  At that point, he says with sincerity, “I start knowing that I am not well because it is not possible. But, believe me, I saw them coming on stage.”

Thamsanqa was on stage, seen by hundreds of millions of people all over the world as they watched Nelson Mandela’s funeral memorial service. He was there to relay, through Sign Language, the messages of speakers like Barack Obama, Jacob Zuma, and others to those with hearing disabilities. 

Some years ago, I did some basic Zambian Sign Language training, although I have not been actively practising it. Like any language, practice, and in various situations, is important for competency.

On reviewing the Mandela FNB event, I noted that signer Thamsanqa at times appeared overwhelmed, left behind, not interpreting or translating, and just observing events around him as Barack Obama went on speaking. But, at times, the signer still did something with his hands.

Perhaps he was hearing the speeches for the first time, from Obama, and next to Obama. Was Thamsanqa overwhelmed by the event and iconic persons near him?

Then some persons who said they knew sign language said Thamsanqa’s signing was not accurate and that it was “fake.” Commentators and media reporters labelled him fake.  Thamsanqa Jantjie became big news worldwide. Some persons even worried about the safety of Barack Obama.

Later, explaining what had happened, Thamsanqa told BBC World News that from the moment of the angels, he was not his usual self.  Some media reports and commentators then called Thamsanqa’s explanation schizophrenia or “a schizophrenic attack.”

Here, I am concerned about the craft of sign language and also what actually happened at the Mandela event.

The situation of the signer at the Nelson Mandela funeral highlights to the world outstanding issues about Sign Language and its application.

Before I heard Thamsanqa’s explanation and apology, I thought about what it could have been like to relay Sign Language on that lively day.

Now, was Thamsanqa expected to interpret or to translate? These are not the same. And did he have beforehand, to allow him to prepare, the speeches of Obama and team? Did Tham only know the speeches as they were being spoken?

And please realise that interpreting vocal speech to the deaf is not the same experience as interpreting from the deaf to the hearing. While some signers can do both, some are sometimes good in one way but not in the other.

Sign Language has universal parts but also some specifics developed in particular countries. For example, the agreed sign for Zambia’s First President may be the sign language letter “K” being waved as he would his cloth handkerchief. Zimbabwe’s President Robert Mugabe may be a moustache with the sign of the official Zimbabwe bird. But the signs are adjusted if new things happen.

If you consider the Barack Obama speech, many things were not easy. Barack Obama had references like “Gandhi,” Martin Luther King, Lincoln, Kennedy, and Khrushchev. There was “movement,” “potent voice,” and “imperfections.” There was “reason and arguments,” “peace,” and “principles.”

These and other images and concepts needed the interpreter or translator to prepare and already know the Sign Language signs for them. Spelling them would take too long and be limited to particular verbal languages. I wonder if the Secret Service could have allowed one Thamsanqa Jantjie to have the Obama speech before hand!

A signer has to have good knowledge of the subject, context, and images in a verbal speech. And speed of the voice speech will affect the interpretation. There is a time gap as persons wait to interpret and also think through. Was Obama’s beat too fast for signer Tham?

I also find that, while Sign Language is very developed, some who may have learnt sign language when they were already hearing-disabled may not easily capture some verbal aspects, like context of speech, that come with learning words from sound.

The Mandela memorial shows need for deep preparation, understanding of context, and understanding various images as used in various situations. Signers should know beforehand what the speech will cover. In any case, the hours on the FNB Stadium platform were too long and tiring for one person to do verbal or sign translation.

Another signer may still have had difficulties and witnesses may differ about accuracy. Signing at the Mandela FNB memorial was probably a “Mission Impossible,” but doable under good planning and coordination.

The Mandela memorial experience should encourage us to have some understanding of Sign Language, just as you would if someone was using another language to relay your message to others. At present, many consider Sign Language as only for persons with hearing challenges.

But there are also other issues. Was Thamsanqa hallucinating and schizophrenic? What one thinks is affected by your beliefs and attitudes.

Through BBC World News, Thamsanqa asked to be believed about seeing angels landing amongst human beings.

“And from that time,” he told BBC, “You must ask yourself of your safety and of your security and safety of other people that are around you.”

One can understand Thamsanqa Jantjie’s words as meaning that when he saw angels, he was worried about what was going to happen to him and those, like Barack Obama, present with him in the physical.

As many persons might do, Tham preferred to be quiet than to disturb Obama and the organisers with a tale about seeing visions.

By the way, reporting seeing angels in the sky is not necessarily schizophrenia, as some media reports and audience comments indicated when they heard Thamsanqa explain what he had gone through on the platform. Instantly labelling another person’s condition as schizophrenia can be an error one should not jump to. Technically, schizophrenia, is about “split” mind or personality.

And in the BBC video’s written text in the screen, found on, as Thamsanqa speaks, the text says the angels came down to the “crowd,” while I actually hear Thamsanqa say the “ground.” If he actually said “ground,” you would not say the “crowd” text makers had illusions!

On whether he knew there was a problem in his relay, Thamsanqa said “Absolutely,” but, “I will say not all of it, as they put it.”

In cultures of wider possibilities, what Thamsanqa Jantjie is saying is not considered impossible. While some people may label it hallucination, illusion, or even schizophrenia, others may label what Tham is saying as “vision” or “apparition.”  Some headlines could have been “Angels at Mandela’s funeral?”

Some officials did not appear to speak harshly about Thamsanqa. Perhaps they can, if not believe, understand his explanation as possible. As things settle down in days to come, there might be more interest in details of what Thamsanqa says he experienced!

We might start learning of those who may begin to treat the FNB stadium, like the reported Catholic Church recognised apparitions at Lourdes, in France, and Fatima, in Portugal, as sacred ground and shrine! Might Thamsanqa Jantjie be considered some gifted or saintly person? Will the Angels story further enhance Nelson Mandela’s reputation?


          (c) GCB, December 2013, Lusaka.


Based in Lusaka, Zambia, the author is involved in writing, social development, and peace issues.


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