Would the real Jani Allan please stand up?


Would the real Jani Allan please stand up?

The expat South African journalist died a broken and lonely person in the US in July, writes HERMAN LATEGAN. He watched his friend's funeral and was outraged by how one man made a mockery of her life.


Jani, the avatar the public learnt to know

I've always known about Jani Allan because I devoured her gonzo-style interviews in the Sunday Times in my greenhorn years.

She got to know the people she spoke to very well, sometimes spending days with them to draw out the finer nuances of the person. It was long before today's Zoom and telephone encounters that are presented as in-depth interviews.

With Jani, you could hear the person she was writing about speak and see their mannerisms; she harnessed all the senses to build an engaging narrative. Oh, and that deliciously sardonic sharp pen that could cut to the bone.

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She interviewed characters as diverse as Johannes Kerkorrel, Johnny Clegg, Pik Botha and Mangosuthu Buthelezi. And then, of course, to the great delight of her malicious colleagues, she was assigned her final coup de grace — an interview with Eugène Terre'Blanche.

This was a tipping point in her career, and the then-editor of the Sunday Times, Tertius Myburgh (and others), meticulously planned her downfall behind the scenes. I won't dwell on it too much because she writes about it in detail in her memoir, Jani Confidential.

This information is also widely available on the internet. In a nutshell, Jani was naive, and Tertius and the Nationalists used her to sow division among rightwingers. Feel free to read on the internet about how the night she supposedly made love to Terre'Blanche at the Paardekraal monument in Krugersdorp was carefully planned to cast aspersions on her.

People often gossiped about how she and Terre'Blanche were sneaky and went out to eat at a restaurant in Pretoria. Rubbish man, that was during and after the period when she was interviewing him. She met him more than once for the interview then used him as a contact to access other people. She also met Kerkorrel in a restaurant — does that mean they also flirted?

Her interview with Terre'Blanche was deliberately misinterpreted and used against her to prove that she supposedly had an affair with him. At one point she was supposedly lying under him when her flatmate looked through a keyhole and saw holes in his underpants. This mythologised danse de mort was used as a nail in her coffin.

The truth is that Jani didn't have much time for Terre'Blanche and referred to him as a pig in a safari suit. He made a spectacle of himself by knocking on the front door of her flat then lying down, dead drunk.

Jani later left South Africa when the far right bombed her flat in 1989.

Interestingly, when Myburgh sent Jani to London to get rid of her because she had become “the story", he enthusiastically played along with the slut-shaming campaign that this country, drenched in patriarchy and chauvinism, participated in at that stage.

She was made out to be sex-obsessed with Terre'Blanche. And this was while the late journalist Maureen Barnes often met Myburgh for secret assignations at the Mount Nelson hotel in Cape Town, according to what she told me. And she was not the only one. Because Jani looked like a model and was also whipsmart, her fake friends and envious colleagues hated her.

Jani was not only a good writer but gifted in other areas. As a 10-year-old, she played piano with the Johannesburg Symphony Orchestra, and she graduated in music and fine arts from Wits University.

A gang of vengeful vampires, whom I won't name, purposefully conspired to bring about her downfall. They were imbued with schadenfreude.

The Jani I knew

In 1997, CapeTalk was established. Jani was back in the country and began a new career as a radio presenter. She appeared on the cover of the glossy magazine Style, where I worked at the time.

I sensed she was bruised and defenceless. Her charm and blunt use of English humour charmed me, and we became friends.

As chance would have it, I was asked to appear on CapeTalk on Fridays at 8.30pm to talk about what was appearing in Style and what was happening in the city's demimonde. Jani's programme was from 9pm to midnight.

We once fought about something, and I remember how she glared at me from behind the window where the producer sat, showing me how she would strangle me. She was furious, and someone had to lock the studio door. Another time, when we fell out over something trivial, she sent me a 12-page fax written in stream-of-consciousness style, without commas, periods or capital letters. It could have worked as a short story but was irrelevant to our argument. I loved her very much. She was unpredictable and moody, then suddenly she was a cat sitting on your lap and purring.

Her programme was sometimes absurd, and she often said things that stunned listeners and CapeTalk management. She smoked in a non-smoking office and was always smartly dressed. Jani was obsessed with conspiracy theories and had strange guests on her show, such as an anti-Semitic American named Keith, the Militiaman of Montana. The things he said got her into trouble, and she had to apologise on air afterwards.

She was not anti-Semitic. Her first husband was a Jew, the art expert Gordon Schachat. She also had a relationship with the radio man Stan Katz. At some point, she had a relationship with the politician Mario Oriani-Ambrosini. They shared a flat in Clifton, where she often sat and drank champagne. One day, she told me she was now a Christian. She also had an interest in Judaism and Islam. Jani was lost and desperately searching for meaning in life.

The Terre'Blanche scandal and the defamation court cases in London were hard on her. The irony, she said, was that she was not interested in sex. As a child, she was molested by one of her stepfather's children. Her first marriage failed precisely because she did not want to have intercourse. Furthermore, she felt like a throwaway dog ​​because she was adopted. This was her primal wound, and she alienated people (to feel like the discarded dog) then asked for their love again.

Years later, on January 25, 2020, Jani posted this on Facebook: “Our identities are always in flux. My avatar, the painted modelly type, was part of me, but it wasn't the totality of me. Often she wasn't who I was at all. But I clung to the clothes and the makeup, hoping they would tell the world that I wasn't just a waif who had been given away like a puppy."

Of course, avatars or egos can be more like oneself than one realises. I bonded with my model avatar because I saw her as an extension of myself.


Jani, the refugee

The inevitable happened. Jani was fired from CapeTalk. She emigrated to the US in 2001. The following year, she married Dr Peter Kulish, an American proponent of biomagnetic therapy.

Jani let me know that he beat her and abused her psychologically. She cried often. One night, she ran away and was admitted to a shelter for abused women. The couple divorced in 2005.

After that, her life slowly fell apart. After the divorce, she worked as a waitress and barista in New Jersey. To alleviate the loneliness and depression, she stayed in touch with a large group of friends around the world, most of them far away from where she lived.

Ruline de Bruyn says: “We talked about many things and people and, yes, about ET too. What was very sad for me was that she was drinking cheap champagne alone in the evening when she heard she got a job at the restaurant. When she started working as a barista, her words were: ‘Jesus, I never thought that I would be so poor at the end of my rope'."

She still wrote regularly for overseas and South African publications but the pay was terrible  and she had to survive on her tips and financial contributions from friends.

Earlier this year, she suddenly fell silent. Her Facebook posts became sparse, her WhatsApp calls as well.

I sent a Facebook message and she replied incoherently: “There are no words to describe how tragic … a giant wicker chair coming unravelled…”

Weeks later: “Thank you, dear heart. I'm not sure how much time I have left. The pathologist's final decree will be tomorrow. Hugs to you!”

The last message: “They tell me that I have cancer and I will not pull through. Thank you for your friendship and loyalty over the years. This is so bizarre. I feel like Woody Allen. He said that he wasn't afraid of dying. He just didn't want to be there when it happened. If you need to reach me, WhatsApp."

Jani was admitted to the Chandler Hall Hospice in Newtown, Pennsylvania and a friend, Yvonne Meintjies, came to visit her from Australia. She was thin and pale, had to use a wheelchair to get along, and often asked Yvonne if she would die before crying bitterly.

Yvonne later had to go back to Australia. Then a final message came from a friend: “Hi Herman, I have some sad news to share. Jani passed away last night at 11pm. She always spoke highly of you, your wit, character and kindness.”


Jani’s memorial service

What a fiasco. In her blog, the South African Melanie Nathan, who lives in the US, writes in depth about this circus.

She is a human rights lawyer who leads the African Human Rights Coalition.

The title is: “Jani Allan would have walked out of her memorial,” and she says, “the memorial service (in Calvary Chapel of Philadelphia) was a disaster for most of us who were there".

Melanie writes that pastor Gil Trusty only talked about Jani's religious conversion and his church's role in it. He deliberately concealed all her successes as a journalist as if to make the point that her fame as a journalist was unimportant.

“The message was that the only important thing was that Jani found Jesus before she died. Her complex life was ignored, with the only focus on her saviour. At this stage, I started to feel like I was at Jesus' funeral," writes Melanie.

Furthermore, he only gave her friends a few minutes to talk about her life and told one of them to sit down because she wasn't on the programme. After that, he preached fervently for 40 minutes. Jani was barely mentioned. The church also thought it appropriate to exhibit pictures of a pale, dying Jani with tubes in her mouth.

When friends complained to the pastor after the service, he suggested they hold their own service.

As Melanie rightly observed, Jani  would have walked out of her own memorial. That Jani Allan had to die poor and alone in a distant land like a discarded dog, the greatest fear that her primal wound awakened in her, is a story so sad that one can hear the earth sigh.

I hope everyone who delighted in her suffering is now happy.

♦ VWB ♦

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