Communication Matters - our blog on trends and events


Talk about meaningless gestures

Often it’s what you say that can get you in trouble. Once in a while, it’s what you sign. Sometimes, it’s both. The story emerging from South Africa about Thamsanqa Jantjie, the dubious translator reportedly paid $77 to do the important work of delivering via sign language the words of the world’s highest-profile leaders during a ceremony celebrating the life of Nelson Mandela just gets more unbelievable by the minute. Let’s look back a day or two and take it from there.

The story began to emerge after Tweets from deaf community advocates, including Bruno Druchen, director of the Deaf Federation of South Africa. Mr. Druchen tweeted during the ceremony that Jantjie was incompetent, a “clown” and asked for his immediate removal from the stage. This request was apparently ignored by the government as he was allowed to continue with apparently meaningless gestures as world leader after world leader took the stage.

Then came the bogus translator’s wide-ranging interviews with media where he acknowledges a history of schizophrenia and violence, delivered alongside claims of competence and established credentials as an accredited translator. He blamed his inability to perform that day on seeing angels, hearing voices and otherwise hallucinating on stage. Now that’s the guy you want during arguably the biggest event in South Africa’s history, with the world looking on via live television. No need for a thorough background check there – just show him the way up front, folks.

Under enormous pressure for an explanation, now we have the South African government weighing in, with Deputy Disabilities Minister Hendrietta Bogopane-Zulu telling reporters at a news conference: "He was procured. He did not just rock up. Did a mistake happen? Yes. He became overwhelmed. He did not use the normal signs. We accept all that."

Ms. Bogopane-Zulu pressed her luck, perhaps thinking that explaining more about the vendor used to procure the translator would help. Ah, well, not so much.  She went on to say the government tracked down the company Jantjie worked for, but the owners "seemed to have vanished. We managed to get hold of them and then we spoke to them, wanting some answers, and they vanished into thin air." And then the cherry on top: "They have been providing substandard service for years."

Even if that were true, why would you ever say it? Admitting to poor vendor selection and insufficient vetting is one thing, but admitting to knowing for “years” that they provided substandard service and still using them for this international event? Now that’s truly shocking, in any language. 

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