The bogus sign language interpreter at last week’s Nelson Mandela memorial service was among a group who accosted two men found with a stolen television and burned them to death by setting fire to tyres around their necks, one of the interpreter’s cousins and three of his friends said yesterday.
But Thamsanqa Jantjie did not go 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.
Their account of the killings matched a description of the crime and the outcome for Mr Jantjie that he described in an interview published at the weekend by the Sunday Times newspaper of Johannesburg.
“It was a community thing, what you call mob justice, and I was also there,” Mr Jantjie told the newspaper.
He was not at his house yesterday.
Instead of standing trial, Mr Jantjie was institutionalised for more than a year, the four said, and then returned to live in his poor township neighbourhood on the outskirts of Soweto.
After that, they said, he started getting jobs doing sign language interpretation at events for the governing African National Congress Party (ANC).
Mr Jantjie said last week he has schizophrenia and hallucinated, seeing angels while gesturing incoherently just three feet away from US president Barack Obama and other world leaders during the ceremony last week at Soweto stadium. Signing experts said his arm and hand movements were gibberish.
Mr Jantjie said last week he had been violent in the past “a lot” but declined to provide more details and blamed his violence on his schizophrenia, for which he said he was institutionalised for 19 months in a period that included time during 2006.
The cousin and the three friends said the “necklacing” killing of the suspected thieves occurred within a few hundred metres of Mr Jantjie’s home.
Necklacing was a method of killing that was fairly common during the struggle against apartheid by blacks on blacks suspected of aiding the white government or belonging to opposing factions. The method was also used in tribal disputes in the 1980s and 1990s.
An investigation is under way by South African officials to determine who hired Mr Jantjie as the interpreter at the Mandela memorial service and if and how he received security clearance.
Four government departments involved in organising the historic memorial service have distanced themselves from the hiring of Mr Jantjie, saying they had no contact with him.
A fifth government agency, the Department of Public Works, declined to comment.
Mr Jantjie said he was hired for the event by an interpretation company that has used him on a freelance basis for years.
The owner of the company was identified as Bantubahle Xozwa, who heads a religious and traditional affairs unit of the ANC. He said Mr Jantijie “is not an interpreter” because he “was disqualified years ago on the basis of his health”.