President Barack Obama delivers a speech next to a sign language interpreter during the memorial service for late South African President Nelson Mandela at Soccer City Stadium in Johannesburg, Dec. 10, 2013.
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Mandela sign interpreter says he hallucinated


The man accused of providing “fake” sign language during Nelson Mandela’s memorial service said he “started hearing voices” and was hallucinating on stage.

Organizers are investigating how 34-year-old Thamsanqa Jantjie was allowed within feet of prominent world leaders speaking at the anti-apartheid icon’s memorial where he was accused of gesticulating wildly in a manner denounced by deaf organizations.

Jantjie told NBC News Thursday he is currently receiving mental health treatment for schizophrenia and that he had hallucinated visions of angels during the memorial.

“While I was working, which is not a part of an excuse… I had a breakdown,” Jantjie said in an interview with BBC. “When I see angels come from sky to the crowd and I start knowing that I’m not well because it’s not something possible. But believe me, I saw them coming on stage. From that moment, it was not myself and from that time you must ask yourself of your safety and your security and safety of other people that are around you.”

Jantjie said he worked as a senior interpreter for a company called SA Interpreters, hired by the African National Congress party. South Africa’s leading deaf association, the Deaf Federation of South Africa, told NBC News no one the group is aware of has ever heard of it, and it cannot find the company anywhere online.

The South African government admitted the man was not a professional interpreter and the ANC said it was the government, not the party, who hired the interpreter.

“There was nothing I could do,” the man told Johannesburg’s Star newspaper. “I was alone in a very dangerous situation. 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.”

Jantjie ”was moving his hands around but there was no meaning in what he used his hands for,” said Bruno Druchen, the national director for the Deaf Federation of South Africa, according to the Associated Press.

Additional sign language experts—including Druchen’s wife, Wilma Newhoudt-Druchen, a member of the South African Parliament who is deaf— said that the man was signing meaninglessly.

“It was horrible, an absolute circus, really, really bad,” Nicole Du Toit, an official sign language interpreter told the AP. ”Only he can understand those gestures.”

“Sign languages are not mime,” said Bruno Druchen in a statement, adding that the interpreter was not using recognized signs for the South African language. 

Hundreds of people expressed their outrage on social media, while multiple deaf organizations confirmed his signing was, in fact, self-invented and mere gestures. 

Druchen also said his federation recognized the same man from signing at another event last year hosted by the African National Congress party and attended by South African President Jacob Zuma. 

In a statement released Wednesday about Nelson Mandela’s funeral, the South African government stated that it has opened an investigation of the “alleged incorrect use of sign language” but has not concluded its work due to organizing the funeral arrangements for the deceased leader.  

Government is looking into this matter but has not been able to conclude this inquiry due to the demanding schedule of organising events related to the State Funeral,” the statement read. “Government will report publicly on any information it may establish but wishes to assure South Africans that we are clear in defending the rights and dignity of people with disabilities.”

Questions surrounding the man’s entry into a high-security event have also surfaced. Edwin M. Donovan, the deputy assistant director for the U.S. Secret Service, told NBC News the sign language interpreter’s participation “were the responsibility of the host organizing committee.”

The Last Word with Lawrence O’Donnell, 12/11/13, 11:11 PM ET

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NBC’s Ron Allen investigates reports of the sign language interpreter at Nelson Mandela’s memorial service being a fraud.

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Mandela sign interpreter says he hallucinated