JOHANNESBURG, South Africa - The sign language interpreter at Nelson Mandela's memorial says he suffers from schizophrenia and hallucinated and saw angels while gesturing incoherently just three feet away from President Obama and other world leaders, outraging deaf people worldwide who said his signs amounted to gibberish.
South African officials scrambled Thursday to explain how they came to hire the man and said they were investigating what vetting process, if any, he underwent for his security clearance.
"In the process, and in the speed of the event, a mistake happened," deputy cabinet minister Hendrietta Bogopane-Zulu said.
She apologized to deaf people around the world who were offended by the incomprehensible signing.
However, she declined to say whether a government department, the presidency or the ruling African National Congress party was responsible for hiring the sign interpreter, telling reporters it isn't the time to "point fingers and vilify each other and start shouting."
The man at the center of the controversy said in an interview on Thursday that he began hallucinating while onstage in the stadium filled with tens of thousands of people and that he tried not to panic because there were "armed policemen around me."
Thamsanqa Jantjie added that he has schizophrenia, was once hospitalized in a mental-health facility for 19 months, and has been violent in the past.
The disclosures raised serious security concerns for Obama, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, and other dignitaries who stood next to Jantjie as they eulogized Mandela at FNB Stadium in Soweto, the black township at the center of the struggle against racist white rule. Mandela died on Dec. 5 at 95.
In Washington, Secret Service spokesman Ed Donovan said vetting for criminal history and other appropriate background checks of the people onstage were the responsibility of the South Africans. He added that Secret Service agents are "always in close proximity to the president."