Jani Allan memoir: the psychology of sex, power, betrayal and ‘slut shaming’

I was a hard-news reporter on the now defunct Rand Daily Mail in 1980 when Jani Allan, a glorious, goddess-like creature swept into the Sunday Times, changing the media and other landscapes forever. Her beauty, brains, bitchy pen, political incorrectness and  superficiality that had an oddball substance collided to create the most celebrated columnist and media celebrity South Africa had ever seen.

I watched with horrified fascination as Allan got caught up in a ridiculous sex scandal in 1988 that toppled her from her pedestal, reverberated across the planet, had former ‘friends’ hurtling out of the woodwork to accept money to betray her, and effectively destroyed her life of glamour, affluence and privilege. Here is my review of  Jani Confidential, Allan’s memoir of surviving against all odds and learning a whole new way of being in the world. – MS

By Marika Sboros

Jani Allan
Jani Allan with one of her Pomeranians, China, on the Delaware Canal in the US. Picture: ANNELI MARTIN

Jani Allan’s memoir is a revelation, a riveting read not so much about the canard of her “affair” with the South African white supremacist leader Eugene Terre’Blanche. Instead, Jani Confidential is a textbook case of the psychology of sex, betrayal, hate, power, politics, and public shaming.

It reveals in graphic, gory detail the horrific toll “slut-shaming” takes on body and mind; how quickly and easily jealousy, envy, and the “righteous power of collective fury” can destroy a life.

The book goes to the heart and hurt of a beautiful young girl overly endowed with intellect, talent and potential, chronically lacking in confidence and self-esteem. It frames a poignant portrait of a woman who just wanted to be loved, affirmed, made to feel safe, who sought that love, affirmation and safety from the wrong people, for the wrong reasons, and who paid an unbelievably high price for doing so.

The only other pathology I could pick up on lies buried in the question of what drove such a smart woman to make such foolish choices over and over and over again. What made her trust so many people – not just men, but women – who used, abused, manipulated and betrayed her with the utmost and obscene venality?

To find an answer, you don’t have to scratch far below the surface of Allan’s amazing life story as told in this book – I use the word amazing deliberately. It reminds me life really is stranger than fiction. It recalls the power behind the quote wrongly attributed to Hitler’s propaganda chief, Joseph Goebbels: “Tell a lie big enough, often enough, and people will believe it’s the truth.”

Jani Confidential - Jani Allen
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Allan presents her story in a fast-paced, chronological format, which makes it reader friendly. It begins with her adoption as a baby by Janet Allan, an austere, remote, domineering, short-tempered woman, the daughter of a Rhodesian cabinet minister.

Allan’s mother was clearly fond of picking up strays, always rescuing creatures, animals or children. Allan was one of those strays. Her mother fostered other children, including a boy of about 16 who took Allan into a garage, and did “inappropriate sexual things” to her.

When he let her go, she burrowed into one of her mother’s cupboards, and stayed there “sobbing into the expensive coats” until her mother returned.

Allan writes that she never told her mother what happened, fearing it was somehow her fault. She makes light of the incident, as she does with other dark incidents, saying only that she managed to “blank it out”, until she started writing about her childhood for this book.

Ugly experience of sex

Her mother’s puritanical views of sex exacerbated that early, ugly experience of sex. She told Allan that sex was “the result of a man getting the better of you”, and “if you have to sit on a man’s lap, put a telephone directory on his legs before you sit”.

It should come as no surprise that as an adult, Allan showed a distinct lack of any interest in sex, an attitude that was to punctuate and mar her relationships with men. It makes her later status as sex goddess, and the focus of the biggest sex scandal ever to rock South Africa that much more ironic.

Allan recalls always feeling like an outsider, though her mother only told her she was adopted when she turned 18. Her mother also told her she never wanted  a girl. She wanted a boy. Those kinds of put-downs were common and they devastated Allan.

Her mother was a haughty and harsh disciplinarian: when Allan fell off her pony, her mother told her to “cease that detestable boo-hooing”, and get  back on. But what Janet Allen lacked in empathy, she more than made up for with vaulting ambition for her newly acquired daughter.

Jani Allan
An early picture of Jani Allan in her trademark hats.

At school, Allan’s academic achievement set her apart from her peers. When told she could skip a grade in primary school, she felt “gutted at the good news”.

She was also gifted artistically and musically. When she showed an interest in the piano at age four, her mother  paid for lessons. It soon became clear she was a prodigy. Allan debuted at 10 with the Johannesburg Symphony Orchestra, and at 11, jointly won the Trinity Cup of South Africa with a 21-year-old pianist.

Her mother was thrilled. Allan was “embarrassed”.

In her teens, when other girls started developing breasts and curves, Allan’s chest stayed resolutely flat, her legs racehorse long and skinny. The boys called them “Wednesday” – when’s-dey-gonna-break – legs

Allan’s mother dreamed her daughter would become a concert pianist and marry a prince. Allan had other ideas. She studied Fine Art at the University of the Witwatersrand, excelled academically, and met Johannesburg art dealer Gordon Schachat, a millionaire member of the property development family. They married in 1982 and divorced amicably in 1984, in part because of her lack of interest in sex, but also because of the pressures of her new-found fame as a celebrity columnist.

‘Smiling Death’

Allan describes how she fell into journalism by chance in 1980 when she applied for a job as a columnist for the Sunday Times. Then editor Tertius Myburgh asked if she had any formal journalistic training. She said no. To her amazement, Myburgh gave her the job.

Allan knew Myburgh’s nickname at the time:  “Smiling Death” for his tendency to “smile as he fired people”. She didn’t know Myburgh’s murkier side: widely held suspicions that he was an agent of the ruling Nationalist Party government. It never occurred to her that Death would smile on her, and stick the knife into her front before she even had time to turn her back. Myburgh died from cancer in 1990.

Allan “adored” Myburgh, and especially needed to hear from him the three words she lived for in those days: “Nice story, Jani.” To that end, she “would parachute out of airplanes, deep-sea dive, go down a mine”, and generally do all manner of things that terrified her.

She chronicles how in 1988 Myburgh instructed her  to arrange to “have tea” with Terre’Blanche,  a name with which she recalls being “vaguely familiar”. He made her accept an invitation from the racist Afrikaner Weerstandsbeweging (AWB)  leader  to attend a training session of Aquila, the movement’s armed wing. Myburgh told her to accept. And he told her to accept Terre’Blanche’s invitation to the Paardekraal Monument, an event that backfired spectacularly on Allan.

Given the political climate of the day and the suspicions around Myburgh, the only inference to be drawn from these interventions is that he deliberately dangled her as bait to discredit and effectively neutralise Terre’Blanche and the AWB. If he was not acting on orders from minders in the racist ruling National Party, Myburgh’s actions would certainly have furthered its cause.

One problem, as Allan writes, is that she religiously followed what she thought was – and usually is – helpful advice from a fellow journalist: “Always remember to write your impression of your subject. Don’t allow yourself to be coloured by other people’s experiences of them.”

That advice turned out to be a “poisoned chalice”.

‘Vintage Jani’

Terre’Blanche, like many wannabe demagogues, was charismatic, and known to have an “unusual” effect on women, as one female reporter described it to me. Allan was not the first woman – or man – to be initially attracted to that charisma, and just as quickly revolted by it.

The words Allan used to describe her first meeting with him, that fateful day on January 25, 1988, of feeling “impaled on the flame of his blowtorch-blue eyes”, were meant to be overwritten and provocative.  Myburgh smiled as he passed them as “vintage Jani”.

Those words proved to be bullets in a cocked gun, waiting for Paardekraal to pull the trigger, setting off a deadly chain of events for Allen that has ricocheted down the decades. It included death threats from the right and the left, physical and mental breakdown, hospitalisation, traction for incapacitating back pain, a bleeding ulcer that came within two hours of killing her, the bombing of her apartment.

Myburgh’s response: he banished Allen to London telling her she could write her column from,  and fired her once she arrived, presumably with a smile on his face.

In London in 1992, “friends” persuaded Allan to sue  Channel 4 and the BBC for libel for airing The Leader, His Driver and the Driver’s Wife, a documentary hinting strongly that she had sex with Terre’Blanche.

Deadly mix

A large part of the book is devoted to that case which on its own makes amazing, almost apocalyptic reading, as if Mother Nature herself mustered natural forces and a cast of dubious characters against Allan, in some kind of revisionist Shakespearean tragedy worthy of King Lear.

It is difficult to comprehend the worst of the lethal mix that proved Allan’s ultimate undoing: her lawyers’ incompetence and greed or a judge in awe of the BBC’s brilliant but sleazy barrister, George Carman, described by Alan Rusbridger editor of  The Guardian at the time, as “the legendary defamation silk”.

Carman died in 2002. And since you can’t defame the dead, Rusbridger notes that Carman’s son Dominic’s blistering tell-all biography, No Ordinary Man, was published post mortem. It portrayed Carman as a bisexual bully, wife abuser, gambler, habitual drunk, and who prevented all sorts of criminals from paying for their crimes.

The odds were always against Allan in this case, facing the BBC’s might and limitless funds to fly out witnesses from South Africa all expenses paid. Yet the ease with Channel 4 persuaded so many former female friends to take up that offer, and the unseemly haste, greed and glee with which they probably perjured themselves in court, defy belief.

Allan’s former flatmate and best friend Linda Shaw, a former journalist turned astrologer gave evidence against Allan. She claimed to have peeped through a keyhole and seen Terre’Blanche’s big white bottom between Allan’s legs, with two of his bodyguards were in the same room, a scene that struck me as laughably improbable at the time.

It’s an understatement to say Allan’s portrait of Shaw in the book is unflattering. It builds a convincing case that Shaw made up the story because she was eaten up with jealousy and envy of Allan, and the many men who were attracted to her. Shaw of course, denies all that.

Yet even if Shaw believes her own story, it raises the question of why she would give evidence against a friend, former or otherwise, if she didn’t have to. The same could be asked of Marlene Burger, were she still alive. Burger, a Sunday Times reporter, was enlisted by Myburgh to help Allan write a hard news account of the Paardekraal incident, and claimed to have been her friend.

Friends did their best to help. And while it isn’t in the book,  billionaire shipping tycoon Taki Theodoracopolous is known to have given Allan £5000 during the case to buy the court records because he said she had “been mugged”.

Losing that court case left Allan penniless, and facing a £300 000 legal bill for costs, offset in part by her mother cashing in her life savings.

Landmines

Yet Allan didn’t always get things wrong with people. Apart from Schachat, who remains a close friend, there was fellow journalist and investigative reporter at the Sunday Times, the late Geoff Allen, who tried hard to help Allan negotiate political ‘landmines’, and warned her she was being used. Others have stayed true to her.

As expected, Allan’s memoir is well written, punctuated with her characteristic style: the surgical journalistic precision, creativity, biting wit, bitchiness, and black humour aimed as much at herself as others. All these combined to make her “a major opinion-maker in her role as one of the country’s premier newspaper columnists, and one of its very first media celebrities”, as the Mail and Guardian’s Rowan Philp wrote in The return of Jani Allan in 2013.

One of the quirks and strengths of the book is its apolitical, often superficial nature, a lack of guile and political correctness with which she writes about the milieu in which she was raised – a privileged white kid raised by a black nanny called Dennis, and a later succession of “house boys”. She tells her story simply, with an unadorned innocence, unburdened with the history of apartheid. She comes across as what she was at the time: not just a babe, but a foetus in the woods of South African politics.

Her memoir’s lack of context at times is form that supports content. However, it can be a weakness that makes it more difficult for readers who are not South Africans, who aren’t in the media, or who did not grow up during apartheid, to understand more fully the context in which Allan lived and worked.

In an article in the New York Times recently on the slut shaming of Justine Sacco on and off Twitter, author Jon Ronson writes that  “sometimes, things need to reach a brutal nadir before people see sense.” Allan’s memoir is the result of reaching the nadir. It has become a catharsis, a way to for her have her say, set the record straight, balance all the fiction written about her that has passed into the collective consciousness as fact, and begin to change the narrative away from slut shaming.

Of course there will be  many who won’t see things through Allan’s exacting prism in this book, and who will continue to believe she did have a sexual relationship with Terre’Blanche, who was murdered by his black farmworkers in 2010. They may even believe she deserved everything that happened to her as a consequence of that “relationship”; and that she is once again being “economical with the truth”, even as the  overwhelming, unadorned and painful honesty and  compelling coherence throughout this book suggests otherwise.

Allan’s mother has died, and while their relationship was difficult, she credits her mother with giving  her the strength and courage to face the hell to come.

Allan has been living in relative obscurity for more than 10 years now, shielded by her avatar, “Juliette”, a waitress in Lambertsville, New Jersey, driving a beat-up yellow Volksie Beetle, living in a flat overlooking a parking lot, with three Pomeranians as constant companions.

She ends her book with a short quote: “I am learning how to rock with the waves.

“I have invented a new way of being in the world.”

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