The fake signer as a symbol of SA

The eloquence of the fake signing man
I won’t lie. A lot of this is bloody funny (read some of
the best jokes about it here). The fake sign language
interpreter is now a cultural phenomenon, featuring on
major US comedy shows and catalysing a new meme.
And yet, at the heart of this, is a terrible sadness. I felt
tremendous pity for Thamsanqa Jantjie as I watched him
interviewed by Karyn Maughan on eNews. Here was a
man cornered, desperate: a man who could see his world
falling apart in front of his eyes.
A modern Walter Mitty, he was holding on for all he was
worth to his sense of self. I am a man, he said. I am a
provider. His wife brought out a blue dustbin bag filled
with medication. She looked resigned.
Chutzpah, I had first thought. It turns out that all you
need to get past the CIA and an entire phalanx of men
straight out of The Matrix is magnificent incompetence.
To fake it till you make it next to the leader of the
hypocritically free world takes cojones. "I am proud to be
South African" said Anton Taylor of Jozi shore.
But the story is so much more complicated. A mentally
unstable man with a history of violent outbursts stood a
metre away from the most powerful leaders in the world
and passed himself off as an interpreter. This was Mr
Bean goes to the UN – only it was very serious.
This is what he said. As it turned out, his gibberish spoke
In South Africa, the signing man told the world, you
don’t actually have to know what you are doing in order
to get a job. You don’t have to have any ability
whatsoever, as long as it looks, to most, as though you
can go through the motions – whether you are a teacher,
a police officer, a bureaucrat, a government official or
(as some have suggested) a state president.
There are those who see through you and complain, but
they are ignored. Ours is not a culture of accountability.
So one gig leads to the next. You’ve done it before so
you get to do it again, because everyone in a position of
power agrees that the emperor’s new threads are stylish.
You stand there and tell us that the appearance of
something becomes more important than the substance
of it.
Your obvious inability to do your job does not prevent
you from getting ahead, until you reach the most
prominent stage in the world, and then pretending
suddenly isn’t enough. Too many people noticed – too
many people who couldn’t just be dismissed because of
their politics or race, which is how criticism is normally
dealt with.
Thamsanqa discovered that eventually, somebody will see
what you are doing, and call you out on it, and there will
be nowhere to run. And you will be blamed, and the
decision makers who allowed a smaller lie to metastasize
into this awful mess will escape censure. Because in
South Africa, nobody is ever held responsible – unless
you’re low enough down the food chain and lack political
connections. Then it’s all your fault.
In his desperate attempts to maintain a facade of
functionality in front of the world, as he heard voices
and saw angels, Thamsanqa Jantjie said more about the
state of South Africa’s current rulers than all the analysts
and spin doctors ever could.
He might not have been able to express a coherent word,
but the fake signing man turned out to be remarkably
Sarah Britten is a communication strategist. This article
first appeared on the Mail & Guardian’s Thought Leader


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