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In Memoriam

Dec 23, 2013, Vol. 19, No. 15 • By THE SCRAPBOOK
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Neson Mandela, a man of some considerable personal dignity, might have been distressed by the series of mishaps at his public memorial service: the disorganization which left thousands unable to get to the event, rendering the stadium half-empty; the embarrassing “selfie” taken by Barack Obama during the proceedings (see left); the cheering of Robert Mugabe and booing of George W. Bush; the burglary at the home of Archbishop Desmond Tutu in Cape Town while he prayed in Johannesburg. 

Mandela Funeral


Or maybe not: Twenty-seven years’ imprisonment probably taught Mandela something about human nature, and the all-too-human tendency toward imperfection. Consider the case of Thamsanqa Jantjie, the sign language interpreter hired by the South African government to “sign” while President Obama, and others, spoke to the assemblage. According to experts, Mr. Jantjie’s finger movements and arm-waving were not sign language at all but—finger movements and arm-waving. Mr. Jantjie begs to disagree. But then adds the interesting fact that he is schizophrenic, and had heard distracting “angels” during the memorial service.

This confirms The Scrapbook’s lifelong devotion to Occam’s razor, the philosophical premise that the simplest, most logical, explanation—for behavior, phenomena, events—is probably the correct one. This is itself a simplification, of course; but the basic idea is usually confirmed by experience. In journalism, we gaze upon obvious things and ask complex questions: Why is Iran enriching uranium? How can the Affordable Care Act be made to work? What is China’s motive in confronting Japan? Why would Thamsanqa Jantjie stand before thousands of people, and millions watching on television, to perform what amounted to a pantomime of sign language? The Scrapbook’s initial presumption—Mr. Jantjie must be crazy—seems now to have been the correct, and obvious, answer.

Which leads, in turn, to a further inquiry: What was the post-Mandela South African government thinking when it hired Thamsanqa Jantjie? 

This story has, thus far, divided into two parts: Hilarity and wonderment at the spectacle itself, and concern about security. Mr. Jantjie has admitted that his schizophrenia sometimes prompts him to violence—and there was President Obama, and other world leaders, within his range. But the answer to questions about Thamsanqa Jantjie is equally obvious, and perhaps too uncomfortable to contemplate. It is entirely possible that the decision to invite a schizophrenic with violent tendencies onto the speakers’ platform was consistent with the widespread confusion, disorganization, and chaos in Johannesburg. And that optimism about the future of the new South Africa, on a continent with a long and troublesome history, might have died along with Nelson Mandela.

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