People & Power

South African sign interpreter, Mandela’s legacy and Njuba

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President Obama (L) and Mr Thamsanqa Jantjie, the sign language interpreter

President Obama (L) and Mr Thamsanqa Jantjie, the sign language interpreter, at Mandela’s memorial in Soweto . Photo by AFP  

By Timothy Kalyegira

Posted  Sunday, December 15  2013 at  02:00

In Summary

That is why it is not yet time to give up religion. We still need to pray for divine protection and guidance for the things and situations that even the most competent and brilliant people and systems cannot offer us, like perfectly water-tight security.

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During the memorial service for the late Nelson Mandela at the First National Bank Stadium in Soweto, Johannesburg, South Africa, a man called Thamsanqa Jantjie came to the podium where dignitaries stood addressing the large crowd.

He went through the motions of a sign language interpreter for speaker after speaker. He later explained to the Johannesburg Star newspaper that “I was alone in a very dangerous situation”. Jantjie said: “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.”

Speaking to the BBC, he said he had heard voices speaking to him and saw angels flying up and down before him. That’s what prompted him, he said, to take to the podium.

Deaf South Africans and officials of the country’s foundation for the deaf first noticed this when none of his hand gestures meant anything at all.

Here was an assemblage of some of the world’s most important people, all in one stadium. Some, like British Prime Minister David Cameron, US President Barack Obama and Danish Prime Minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt fooled around taking a “selfie” with a smartphone.

A “selfie” (from the word self), for those who don’t know, is the latest of the many silly fads increasingly preoccupying the Internet and digital era generation. It is a self-portrait, a photo or picture one takes when one turns a camera or cellphone to oneself and snaps a picture.

They are mostly of a low quality, but these days in which the more silly a craze (planking, twerking and so on), the more popular.

So, there we were. Important world leaders whiling away the minutes taking selfies, unaware that there was a Schizophrenic man standing just a few feet from them, who could just as easily have been a suicide bomber, had a knife on him and could have assassinated any one of them.

It brought to mind a similar incident at Kololo Airstrip in Kampala on Independence Day in October 1993 when a mentally unstable man, John Mukwaya managed to slip unnoticed through President Museveni’s inner security detail and stand just a few feet from the head of state, at attention and saluting like Museveni during the playing of the national anthem.
These are the little things that remind us of how, even the best security services and the most detailed efforts to protect VIPs will always have loopholes that can casually be exploited.

We usually regard heads of state and other very important political and government officials as enjoying a measure of personal security well beyond the ordinary person. But even they, like us, are still prone to the realities of human error. That is why it is not yet time to give up religion. We still need to pray for divine protection and guidance for the things and situations that even the most competent and brilliant people and systems cannot offer us, like perfectly water-tight security.

That is the first thought. The second thought is about Mandela too. As I wrote last week following his death, the world has gotten into the habit of focusing on the sole person, the solitary hero, the one outstanding figure in everything.
It ignores details. The impression we are given especially now at this time of global mourning for Mandela, is that he as a man alone, or almost alone, ended apartheid and to him we all owe a debt of gratitude.

Contribution of other African leaders
This was a week of pride in Africa at Mandela’s achievements. However, had we had a better idea of African history, the Master of Ceremonies at the stadium in Soweto, the ANC’s deputy president Cyril Ramaphosa should have read out a roll call of the many other African leaders who played a prominent role in opposing apartheid.

But since we went global and these days we spend our time on American-founded social media websites and watch CNN and BBC as the main sources of our international news, we were washed away by the hype around Mandela originating from the West.

The Black South Africans missed the opportunity to learn about how much Tanzania, Namibia, Uganda, Mozambique, Ethiopia, Libya, Zambia, Angola, Zimbabwe, Senegal, Ghana and other countries helped them during the apartheid era with everything from passports to money, training bases for ANC guerrillas, diplomatic and political support and havens of exile.

The other Africans missed the opportunity to learn that much about their own history. No single Ugandan newspaper wrote an article about the military training bases in Nakaseke District that the ANC used.

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