The Slatest

Yep, the Story of the Bogus Mandela Signer Just Got Even Crazier

In these combination of pictures taken on December 10, 2013 US President Barack Obama delivers a speech next to sign language interpreter Thamsanqa Jantjie (R) during the memorial service for late South African President Nelson Mandela

Photo by Alexander Joe/AFP/Getty Images

We now have a pretty good idea why Thamsanqa Jantjie—aka the “fake” sign language interpreter from last week’s Nelson Mandela memorial—was charged with murder back in 2003.* According to the Associated Press, which got the story from one of Jantjie’s cousins and three of his friends, he was among a group of people “who accosted two men found with a stolen television and burned them to death by setting fire to tires placed around their necks”:

But Thamsanqa Jantjie never went to trial for the 2003 killings when other suspects did in 2006 because authorities determined he was not mentally fit to stand trial, said the four. They insisted on speaking anonymously because of the sensitivity of the fake signing fiasco, which has deeply embarrassed South Africa’s government and prompted a high-level investigation into how it happened. …

Instead of standing trial, Jantjie was institutionalized for a period of longer than a year, the four said, and then returned to live in his poor township neighborhood on the outskirts of Soweto. At some point after that, they said, he started getting jobs doing sign language interpretation at events for the governing African National Congress Party.

That story matches up with the broad strokes offered by Jantjie in a separate interview with the Sunday Times over the weekend. “It was a community thing, what you call mob justice, and I was also there,” he told the paper. According to the AP, so-called “necklacing” was a fairly common killing tactic used during the fight against apartheid by blacks on blacks suspected of aiding the white government. It was also used in tribal disputes in the 1980s and 90s, although appears to have been used rarely as a form of mob justice against thieves.

The revelation that Jantjie—a man who again was only feet from President Obama and other world leaders on Tuesday—has a lengthy criminal past first came to light on Friday thanks to the reporting of a South African news channel that uncovered a number of allegations, including the 2003 murder charge. The original report, however, were lacking most details, in part because South Africa’s National Prosecuting Authority wasn’t able to provide them and in part because the case files concerning the 2003 incident were, for reasons that still aren’t clear, empty.

South African officials, meanwhile, continue to investigate how Jantjie—despite his violent past and inability to, you know, use sign language—landed the high-profile gig on stage in Johannesburg.

*Correction Monday, Dec. 16: Due to a typo, an earlier version of this post misstated the year that Jantjie was charged with murder. It was 2003, not 2013.

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