Rod MacKenzie
Rod MacKenzie

South Africa and other orphaning nations (Jani Allan Part II)

Even now, a quarter of a century later, here in Auckland, New Zealand, I have mentioned to other South Africans Jani Allan’s newly released memoir Jani Confidential and they respond, “so what was she doing with that idiot ET (Eugene Terre’Blanche)?”

“For God’s sake,” I reply, “give the woman a break”. As Jani Allan says on Twitter, “What culture puts someone through 25 years of ritual humiliation?”

Indeed, which culture does? And to what extent is Jani herself responsible for sustaining this scandalous humiliation when she furiously responds to Ferial Haffajee’s off-the-cuff comment about her “affair” with ET? On one hand her response to Haffajee is clever marketing. After all, her memoir was then soon to be released. On the other hand, a hand which I hold aloft and wave around, it is an impassioned plea to not treat women like trampled-over shit just because of whom they may or may not have slept with — which is nobody else’s business — never mind the fact it is now a quarter of a century later. Isn’t it amazing how men never seem to get the same humiliating, slutty treatment? Monica Lewinsky readily springs to mind.

All this prior prejudice and ways of reading the “known” Jani Allan, and the cultural context which produced her, complicate one’s response to the memoir before reading the first page. Questions arise immediately: will she justify herself? Does she have to, and to whom? How will she explain the shame that then defined her life and wrecked her career? What happened to her afterwards, after Cape Talk and all that?

You cannot approach Jani Confidential — if you lived through those times, the Eighties and Nineties — without thinking of a woman impaled on ET’s blowtorch eyes. That notorious image is downright awful. Who would have thought such deliciously bad prose would be one of Jani’s tugs on a career ripcord that then broke? Certainly not even the writer herself.

Fortunately, Jani’s beguiling, often self-effacing candour about herself and her shortcomings, along with her razor wit and photographic eye for the details of fashion and history (capturing an entire epoch of lifestyle in Eighties Johannesburg), all come together in a moving read about human frailty. The prose is so authentic. Her style and focus prevents this movingly human memoir from being dissolved in the scandals involving the AWB thugs and the London trial with Channel Four which followed.

Thereafter, the shipwreck that her life becomes in the US as she tries to negotiate an overwhelming world is heart-breaking. She descends into poverty and despair. She becomes a frail woman trying to tread icy water for hours on end while juggling a number of balls — yes, some of them genuine testicles but not attached to real men — and her humiliation is mirrored in her prose. Sometimes her words are devilishly sophisticated, enviably profound and vivid, and at other times gauche. Her witty, bitchy descriptions are worthy of the Sunday Times “Just Jani” column. For example, her description of Linda Shaw who later on betrays her at the Channel Four Trial:

Linda Shaw was the most obnoxious woman I had ever met. I liked her instantly. She had a smokey laugh, an exploded armchair hairstyle and long, long earrings that lurched and swung as she spoke. Her laugh was like blood gargling from a cut throat … she carried a giant tote bag like an elephant’s scrotum.

Yet at other times her imagery finger-paints her as a lost child, not only literally an orphan. She winds up in a shelter for abused women in the US, and thereafter as a server in a restaurant in Pennsylvania, and is desperate enough to try and find comfort in that most improbable of places for her, given her backstory: the arms of a man. Bert is a bloke she no longer knows but remembers from her youth in Hillbrow: “I wanted to lean against him, that was all. Just for a few hours. Was that so bad?” Or her clumsy Mills & Boon description of a tête-à-tête with the same guy: “When Bert kisses my arms it feels like tracer bullets on my soul.” Yet gauche images like this are also disarmingly honest and telling. They come from a talented memoirist, who is capable of both great insight into human nature and a Winnie-the-Pooh naivety, who expresses a “multiplicity of selves” in one or two paragraphs, as I wrote in my previous blog.

With these juxtapositions in mind, by the end of the memoir you have the portrait of a vulnerable, victimised woman in tatty, luxury clothes with the last of her jewellery gleaming beneath her raw, 60-year-old knuckles as she cleans tables: a woman who is at peace with her “lower class” obscurity. These last chapters of her story are deeply moving. I am uncertain as to how to “sign off”. I found one ending to another review, “Come home Jani Allan, all is forgiven,” a tad trite and flippant. Oh, this strange, beautiful word, “home”. That reviewer forgets that Jani, like many people all over the world who are forced to leave their homelands or flee them, has been orphaned by her own country. There is no coming home, or no easy way. Of course I identify with Jani. We, all of us, have entered an epoch where nations repeatedly do not look after their own. This is a milieu where, by sinking boat or through a Kathmandu pile of paperwork, people seek refuge in other countries, anywhere but “home”. Jani Confidential captures what it is like to be an outsider in a growing world of immigrants and that the word “home” is one to be sung softly, or hung around one’s neck like an ancient, all but forgotten keepsake.

As Jani says right near the end of her memoir while she cleans in the restaurant, “When our chef Eric calls me ‘homes’ (aka homie), I find it endearing. It’s a term of acceptance”.

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    • OneFlew

      I suspect most cultures put people through indefinite periods of beyond-the-paleness once they’ve been shamed for certain things.

      But maybe it was just the most publicly memorable thing she has done? Both Edwina Currie and John Major are for instance remembered for their affair, but Edwina – a sharp, vibrant, tough person and former parliamentarian – is remembered almost solely for the affair. I was in a talk that had her on the panel a few weeks ago. She was asked whether she should be referred to as the ‘right honourable’ and she laughed ‘I am not even honourable’. No sensitive artist’s temperament or self-pity there.

      Without knowing Jani or her circumstances at all emigration itself can, as you know, be fairly tough on one. A disproportionate number of emigrants I have known from my approximate age group have either died prematurely, or survived severe illness, or suffered mental problems.

    • Rod MacKenzie

      Agreed on your final paragraph Once Flew. I eventually arrived back in New Zealand with a lot of the symptoms of PTSD. I am still in support groups and that is great as I have made laods of friends and love the “design for living” I have learned there. I know of suicide cases among immigrants here in New Zealand or Oz and attempted suicides. And heartbreaking stories of struggle. Thanks for commenting.

    • miket

      Whatever happened to Bob What’s-His-Name (he of the FNB “BOB” atm machine) and Sandra van der Merwe ?