Revered and then reviled, at the height of her fame Jani Allan was one of South Africa’s best-read columnists. And then she lost it all when she took on Britain’s Channel 4 over allegations that she had had an affair with erstwhile AWB leader Eugene Terre’Blanche. Here she writes of life in the fast lane in the late 1980s – at the height of the state of emergency.
Johannesburg - Saxonwold, Johannesburg is a long way from Fochville, and not only geographically. Tonight I am attending a Cartier fashion show held in the garden of Stephen Mulholland’s mansion.
Steve’s come a long way since he interviewed me when I was ten, my mother was planning for me to be a concert pianist and he had rented our cottage in Ferndale for R30 a month.
He’s now MD of Times Media Limited. TML: Toe Mulholland’s Line. The story journalists love to tell is how he once hurled a typewriter out of the window of the old SAAN building.
(* FOR THE RECORD: Stephen Mulholland has denied this: “It is beyond my understanding how a newspaper such as The Star could publish a book extract containing the defamatory statement that some 30 years ago I threw a typewriter out of an office building. The book’s author does not enjoy high levels of credibility.
“The Star has admitted to me that it failed to check the facts. It did not contact me, a simple matter and elementary in proper journalism, for comment prior to publication. The editor refuses to apologise on the basis that he ‘personally’ did not know if the facts were ‘right or wrong’. I have been an editor, and as a CEO have appointed editors both here and in Australia, and such an approach is, in my view,
inexplicable and inexcusable.
“To throw a heavy, old-fashioned typewriter out of an office building would be a criminal offence, endangering the lives and safety of pedestrians and those in vehicles. I have never done that, and The Star clearly failed in its duty of responsible editing to check its facts before publication.”)
Actually, my first typewriter was a gift from Steve. It was an old Smith. It was so old, they stopped making typewriter ribbons for it.
Lorraine Mulholland, Steve’s newest wife, is the PR for Cartier.
After marrying Steve, she changed her name to Lolly. Lolly sounded more glamorous than Lorraine, she told me once.
The usual cast of kugels are preening. The heels of their rhinestone-encrusted Frassinellis, Maglis and Blahniks are sinking like little Venices into the lawn.
“Merely installing a few scrawny impala on a plot outside Potch doesn’t count as a game farm,” says a svelte redhead, aggressively decanting an oyster into her mouth. “I told him straight. Pity my ex ended up with the game farm in Botsies. He was about to suggest we go to the Kruger National Park.’
“Gross,” shudders Noelle Bolton. “At least if he’d said Mala Mala…”
“I should have known by the gold Porsche,” says Oyster Decanter.
“So video shop owner. Don’t look now! That dressmaker is making a beeline for us.”
Greta Abrahamson, who has recently been named Designer of the Year, descends on us.
“Noelle, darling! You look so much better when you’re carrying a little weight. Nice ring! New? Looks like two carats. Three? Is it really? My jacket? Yes, it is nice, isn’t it? It’s the detail, darling. As Mies van der Rohe said, God is in the detail. As for you” – she pokes my lapel accusingly – “I never know quite what you’re supposed to be. Journalist? Celebrity? Let me make you something stunning. A mini. Slashed to here. Cut on the bias. It will cost you nothing. Well, a tiny mention in your column would be nice –”
A fanfare interrupts her soliloquy.
“Ladies and gentlemen! Just to remind you that the proceeds of tonight’s function will go to African Self Help. Now – the Errol Arendz Collection!’
A pair of black models glide down the ramp on invisible castors. “What do you think?” Adele Searll hisses urgently in my ear. “The pink or the navy? Maybe I should have both. Just to be safe.”
Tony Factor sidles up. He has just had a facelift. He started out selling false teeth in Petticoat Lane in London. These days he is the Discount King of South Africa. He discounts everything. Even coffins. Will face-lifts be next?
Tony blows his nose ostentatiously. “Look!”
Adele glances at his opened palm briefly and shrieks.
“It’s only an oyster!” Tony guffaws.
Johannesburg has never been a place for the fastidious or the oversensitive.
It is hideous and detestable, luxury without order, sensual enjoyment without refinement, display without dignity.
Just as I arrive home at the flat, the phone rings. She’s taking the pink and the navy. Just to be safe.
In South Africa, acquisitiveness is not so much a virus as a chronic disease of epidemic proportions. Money is what death was to Keats.
* * *
Writing one interview a week is infinitely more difficult than filling whole pages, as I did for nine years (in addition to writing art reviews and radio columns).
My energy was fuelled by fear of failure. At least when I’d run out of think pieces on pencil sharpeners, anxiety attacks and the advantages of being Italian, I was able to fall back on the gung-ho option. I did acrobatic flying, kendo, went sailing with the Springbok yachtsman John Martin in the naval racing yacht Voortrekker… I even wrote off a car in a celebrity race at Kyalami in pursuit of good pictures if not memorable prose.
When my column changed to “Jani Allan’s Week”, my brief was to write on the banquet of life in South Africa. As someone once remarked, “South Africa has always regarded culture as an embellishment to a utilitarian life or a distraction from it.”
Travel broadens the mind. Tourism narrows it. Suburbia is to be always drifting from one overseas tour to the next. Here and now are unpleasant realities.
So, Joel Grey-like, I observed the cabaret – and with equipollent bemusement the tonnage of nonsense written about me.
“For the past nine years there have been luncheons and brunches and fan mail. An anonymous admirer still sends her a bottle of Moët & Chandon every Monday… she flies to Cape Town for a lunch date and Mauritius for the annual marlin fishing. There are overseas trips and safaris to Chobe…”
I think it was at Chobe, where the floodplain spreads out like a nursery tablecloth patterned with hundreds of toy elephants, that I really saw the gaping chasm that exists between what women’s magazines call “the Real Me” and the brashly confident, relentlessly glamorous persona invented by the Sunday Times that was “Just Jani”.
It was on the Mosioa Tunya, the river boat, to be precise. I was drinking (or in columnspeak “quaffing”) Dom Perignon and watching the Campari-pink sky turn ink blue.
“Aren’t you Jani-Allan-of-the-Sunday-Times?” The game ranger’s question was innocuous. He wasn’t to be blamed for thinking I had a quadruple-barrelled surname.
So I attended race meetings where trainers were glued to binoculars the size of ice-cream cones and the glitterati were glued to the nearest celebrity. And since South Africa had no royalty or real celebrities, I invented them.
“More than three mentions in JA’s column and you’re a celebrity,” declared Barry Ronge, the film critic and media personality. “People are grateful to be insulted by her. It’s better than being ignored.”
Only in South Africa would an observation that Goldie Hawn had a tea stain on her dress be construed as an insult. But then in South Africa in the ’80s, a sense of humour was usually detained, if not placed under house arrest.
Still, instead of writs, there were requests for my presence at the next ball. And the next. Often the collaboration proved more nerve-racking than an open display of hostility. Only the rich don’t have to sing for their lunch.
* * *
Although being in close proximity to scantily clad women who have curves like scenic railways intimidates me, I force myself to do at least three gym classes a week.
Janis Dorfman’s classes are an excruciating who’s who in the Kugel Zoo. To these women, aerobics is a religion and a way of life.
Infinitely preferable to the deafening Dolby stereo and whooping about “going for the burn” are my kendo classes. Probably because it can’t be practised as a form of entertainment or sexual display, kendo hasn’t become popular in South Africa.
Before every class I am filled with apprehension. There is always a frisson of thrill at dressing up in the Prussian blue armour of the Samurai warrior. My hands tremble a little as I pull on my kote and take up the shinai – the sword made of bamboo strips.
I am entering a medieval world redolent of mystique and the majesty of ancient ceremony.
Kendo is about intense concentration, the summoning of all the physical and mental resources. It is only when these powers are summoned that it is possible to deliver the death blow to your opponent with complete absence of anger. The kendoka does not use his strength in spite of the violence of the attack.
What matters most is the technique of dealing with the blow. Over and over we practise the ritual bowing, slashing, slicing, striking, cantering and lunging. David Sacks, who has the kind of body that demands to be planed rather than stroked, tries to teach me the principles of the suburi – the blows. Each stroke must be accompanied by the blood-curdling kiai – the blow that kills. The kiai should be a harsh and terrifying utterance designed to paralyse the opponent for a fraction of a second. The true kendoka, it is said, is able to utter a kiai that can make a bird topple from a branch.
My feeble squeaks would hardly waken a sleeping budgerigar, but I keep going.
Afterwards I sit in Janis’s kitchen smoking. Rivers of sweat like the lesser tributaries of the Yangtze are coursing down my face. After a kendo class, ikebana always seems like an attractive alternative. Janis is bemoaning that there are fewer people attending her Sunday morning gym classes these days. They’re either going to pistol shooting classes or taking the Rottie to dog training.
* Jani Confidential by Jani Allan is published by Jacana at a recommended retail price of R225.
** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Media.