‘I don’t want to be emotional but this is one of the greatest moments of my life,” declared Nelson Mandela upon meeting the Spice Girls in 1997. So I like to think he would have appreciated the livelier aspects of his funeral observances. The Prince of Wales, who was also present on that occasion in Johannesburg, agreed with Mandela on the significance of their summit with the girls: “It is the second-greatest moment in my life,” he said. “The greatest was when I met them the first time.” His Royal Highness and at least two Spice Girls (reports are unclear) attended this week’s service in Soweto, and I’m sure it was at least the third-greatest moment in all of their lives. Don’t ask me where the other Spice Girls were. It is a melancholy reflection that the Spice Girls’ delegation was half the size of Canada’s, which flew in no fewer than four Canadian prime ministers, which is rather more Canadian prime ministers than one normally needs to make the party go with a swing.
But the star of the show was undoubtedly Thamsanqa Jantjie, the sign-language interpreter who stood alongside the world’s leaders and translated their eulogies for the deaf. Unfortunately, he translated them into total gibberish, reduced by the time of President Obama’s appearance to making random hand gestures, as who has not felt the urge to do during the great man’s speeches. Mr. Jantjie has now pleaded in mitigation that he was having a sudden hallucination because he is a violent schizophrenic. It has not been established whether he is, in fact, a violent schizophrenic, or, as with his claim to be a sign-language interpreter, merely purporting to be one. Asked how often he has been violent, he replied, somewhat cryptically, “A lot.”
Still, South African officials are furiously pointing fingers (appropriately enough) to account for how he wound up onstage. “I do not think he was just picked up off the street. He was from a school for the deaf,” Hendrietta Bogopane-Zulu, the Deputy Minister for Persons with Disability, assured the press. But the Deaf Federation of South Africa said it had previously complained about his nonsensical signing after an event last year. Mr. Jantjie was paid a grand total of $85 for his simultaneous translation of the speeches of the U.N. secretary-general, six presidents, the head of the African Union, and a dozen other dignitaries. Ms. Bogopane-Zulu notes that the going rate for signing in South Africa is $125 to $165. So she thinks a junior official may simply have awarded the contract to the lowest bid.
That would never happen in Washington, of course. But how heartening, as one watches the viral video of Obama droning on while a mere foot and a half away Mr. Jantjie rubs his belly and tickles his ear, to think that the White House’s usual money-no-object security operation went to the trouble of flying in Air Force One, plus the “decoy” Air Force One, plus support aircraft, plus the 120-vehicle motorcade or whatever it’s up to by now, plus a bazillion Secret Service agents with reflector shades and telephone wire dangling from their ears, to shepherd POTUS into the secured venue and then stand him onstage next to an $85-a-day violent schizophrenic. In the movie version—In the Sign of Fire—grizzled maverick Clint Eastwood will be the only guy to figure it out at the last minute and hurl himself at John Malkovich, as they roll into the orchestra pit with Malkovich furiously signing “Ow!” and “Eek!” But in real life I expect they’ll just double the motorcade to 240 vehicles and order up even more expensive reflector shades.
Also pondering security issues was Archbishop Desmond Tutu. He returned home from the service to find that, while he’d been out hailing Mandela as the father of the new South Africa, his house had been burgled. One suspects that Mr. Mandela, for whom a little of the garrulous archbishop went an awful long way, would have enjoyed this rather more than he ought. Speaking of enjoying themselves, back in the VIP seats President Obama, Danish prime minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt, and British prime minister David Cameron carried on like Harry, Hermione, and Ron snogging in the back row during the Hogwarts Quidditch Cup presentation. As the three leaders demonstrated their hands-on approach, Michelle Obama glowered straight ahead, as stony and merciless as the 15-foot statue of apartheid architect Dr. Hendrik Verwoerd that once stood guard outside the government offices of the Orange Free State. Eventually, weary of the trilateral smooching, the first lady switched seats and inserted herself between Barack and the vivacious Helle. How poignant that, on a day to celebrate the post-racial South Africa, the handsome young black man should have to be forcibly segregated from the cool Aryan blonde. For all the progress, as Obama himself pointed out, “our work is not yet done.”