You were hugely influential as the successful editor of the country’s largest newspaper. You were seen as a builder of bridges in a deeply divided society. Before we both become a footnote in history, let the record show I believe you used me as a cabaret turn.
Dear Mr Myburgh,
Almost 25 years to the day after you died, John Matisonn’s book God, Spies and Lies has been published.
Most journalists are doing a “yawn yawn snore”, pretending that everyone knew that you were an apartheid spy.
I remember our first meeting.
I thought you were handsome and debonair,
(Andy Garcia in the movie.)
You looked exactly as I thought an editor should look. Lots of thick wavy hair. Big strong teeth. Braces. You were vain about your clothes. Your shirts were made in Jermyn Street. Your shoes from Lobb. Your favourite restaurant in Londres was Le Gavroche.
Of course you were condescending to me. You glanced at my classical music reviews. “Well anyone who can write about muscular bowing deserves a chance. Mr Ashton wants you and whatever Mr Ashton wants Mr Ashton gets.”
Actually you said it in a way that made me believe the exact opposite. But within days you had Leslie Seller, your UK import, design a three-picture byline – and change my name from Janet to “Jani”. I was not consulted. I was your creature. I lived to hear those three little words “Nice story Jani.” In truth, I suppose, in retrospect, I was a tad smitten by you. I must have been. Why else would I be slightly jealous when you referred to Sheila Camerer as “delicious”.
You were hugely influential as the successful editor of the country’s largest newspaper. You were seen as a builder of bridges in a deeply divided society. The Johannesburg Sunday Times was a unique and often bizarre blend of tabloid journalism and serious political analysis. You called it ”quali-pop”.
You referred to the “craft” of journalism and how “we” could make our “craft” a socio-political force in South Africa. It worked. The Sunday Times had a readership of some four million. You snagged the serious attention of local politicians, international statesmen and some of the best political analysts from South Africa and abroad, all of whom jostled for space in the paper’s opinion pages. Politically? You said you were “extreme centre”.
I know that you viewed me as a kind of curiosity. I wore a silly cap all the time and drove a sports car. But I was a marketable commodity. Soon, I had the highest readership on the paper. I worked ceaselessly. At one stage I was writing three columns a week. There was no space for my marriage. I was married to the Sunday Times. You would poke me in the ribs. “Too thin. You’re too thin. And you never stop smoking!” I loved it when you scolded me. I thought it meant you cared.
When my column grew up into Jani Allan’s Week, and was moved into the main body of the newspaper, I was invited to the same parties that you were. Maybe a competitive edge entered into our relationship. When I came back from London with a Filofax you sneered. Yours was better you said. But you took a kind of fatherly – I assumed it was fatherly – pride in the way your friends warmed to me. Adele Searll, Tony Bloom, Donny Gordon. Pik Botha. Zach de Beer. Prince Mangosuthu Buthelezi.
When Pik was having a little local difficulty having to explain the presence of Cubans in Angola, quick-sticks you had me pop over to the Union Buildings. The interview was scheduled to last three quarters of an hour. I returned to DiaDiagonal Street three hours later.
“I know Pik’s taste in women!” you smirked triumphantly.
But I was, as you liked to say “an adornment” to the Sunday Times.
You “gifted” me with a column and with “fame”.
You weren’t to know that thanks to this poisoned chalice people in the mining town knew who I was, so when things went pear-shaped for me they giggled and pointed. Occasionally I was invited to your home. It was predictably elegant. Lots of stinkwood and a large wine cellar so that you could bloviate about your sommelier ship to visiting Yanks. Only when I saw you at home with your wife, Helmine, did I remember that you were an Afrikaner, proud of roots reaching back 300 years.
You affected a hot potato accent when answering the phone in English. When you knew the caller was Afrikaans it was ‘Mayyberghhhh.’
Astonishing, then, that at 35 you were the youngest editor in South Africa of the English language. You dined with the Oppenheimers and with Cabinet Ministers. On a Saturday night you would come and watch the presses roll out the first edition wearing black tie and dinner jacket. At a time when the political and cultural gulf between English and Afrikaans speaking South Africans was as wide as the divisions between black and white, you were as at home in the Anglicised atmosphere of Johannesburg’s Rand Club, as in the Dutch Reformed Church of which you were an elder.
Not only English and Afrikaans. The Jewish community adored you.
Adele Searll, Tony Bloom, the Weils – that chubby guy from Liberty Life – Donny Gordon – all the Jewish money powers loved you.
One day you called me into your office – we had moved into Helmut Jahn’s Diamond Building by this time – to tell me that you wanted me to interview the main players in the only arena that had real importance – the political one. My column would be called Face to Face, and I would deliver a major profile every week which would be on page two of the main body of the paper. I took my own photographs and you were chuffed when I managed to snag someone whom you admired. When I interviewed David Ogilvy at Anton Rupert’s Court House in Hyde Park, you were pleased. You loved it when I interviewed Magnus Malan and Beyers Naude too. Well, not so much Beyers. He wasn’t glamorous enough. He lived in a small house in Greenside. Once, when you came back from Angola you told me with great enthusiasm about an extraordinary man you had met. A poet, a man who spoke half a dozen languages and a warrior, you said. You told me I should set up the interview. It took months.
On the day I was to fly out – December 22 1988 – you swept into my tiny office like an angry hawk.
“Cancel your flight. Cancel the interview. Resolution 435!’ you snapped crisply.
The resolution adopted on September 29, 1978, put forward proposals for a cease-fire and UN-supervised elections in South African-controlled South-West Africa which ultimately led to the independence of Namibia. It was the first time I had seen you so agitated. It was as though you had been issued with an instruction.
It was also the first time I had seen that you were capable of a pragmatism that far outweighed any sentimental feelings about the Poet/rebel leader whom you had sought to promote by organising junkets to his bush camp in Jamba.
When I happened to be in Mauritius when the Helderberg fell out of the sky, you called me.
“Get your skinny backside to Plaisance Airport. You’re Lois Lane and you are on the flight deck.”
When I told you that Pik Botha had arrived on the island you waved away my interest in why he would be there.
“He is probably having a little holiday!” you said, somewhat disingenuously.
I had become friends with Geoffrey Allen, a fine reporter but an alcoholic. When drunk, Geoff would regale me with stories about who the “spooks” were in the newsroom. Geoff would ramble on about “Sister Agnes” Magnus Malan, and a place called Bird Island where naughty things went on with large fromages in the South African Defense Force and young men. He told me about the Info Scandal and Gordon Winter and Wouter Basson and General van den Bergh, and how, even you, were a spook, Mr Myburgh.
I grew annoyed with Geoff. In those days I couldn’t have been less interested in “conspiracies” or politics. I was interested in handbags. Mr Myburgh has my back, I insisted. “You’re being used, Jannity,” he insisted.
It is by-now well chronicled that you ordered me to go and interview Eugene Terre’Blanche. When ET invited me to his farm to go horse-riding, you were greatly amused and advised me not to stand him up.
What did you mean?
I kept you apprised of every meeting, every time I saw the man.
In a spirited defense of you, Stephen Mulholland writes “Matisonn obviously cannot appreciate that no editor is all-powerful and that editorial staff are not generally disposed to slavish obedience.”
I was slavishly obedient to you, My Myburgh.
When Barend Strijdom slaughtered innocents in Pretoria, I said that I did not want to go and interview Terre’blanche about it.
“I do the important stuff,” I quipped feebly. “The trips to Venice. The junkets to Mala Mala. The sets of the Bond movies in Corfu.”
You were ruthless and unambiguous.
You do this or “There will be no more trips to Venice!”
You deemed my story on ET to be “vintage Allan.” You didn’t change a word. You looked at the photographs I had taken and said “A marriage made in heaven…”
What did you mean?
When things became pear-shaped, our relationship soured dramatically.
My illness annoyed you. First there was the back in traction. Then the bleeding ulcer. Both were brought on by stress. The Sunday Times paid for all my private room nursing home stays. But when I confided in you that Terre’blanche was leaving endless messages for me on my answering machine you looked positively elated.
“How do you know it’s him?” you asked. I rolled my eyes.
Then “Bring me the tapes!”
So we came to be sitting in the underground parking of the Diamond Building listening to Terre’blanche leaving drunken messages on my answering phone in the tape-deck of your brand new Mercedes
“Right! Now we will blow the bastard out of the water forever!” you crowed, brandishing the cassettes.
You had great charm, but a steely political agenda. Now I understood why you were called ”Smiling Death.”
I begged you not to publish the tapes. I did not wish to humiliate ET further. I explained that I needed someone to know how I was being besieged.
My phone was tapped, I was being followed by three different intelligence agencies and the wheel came off my car. But you told me that I had been watching too many movies.
You called me from Sol Kerzner’s Cape Home.
“Be strong. These things happen to pretty girl reporters,” you said. “We’re supporting you.” That was adjacent to the truth.
When my apartment was bombed you knew about it before the story was out on Reuters. It was Thursday morning. You wanted me “out of the country” by Sunday. I would work from the Sunday Times office in Hatton Garden, you promised me. My crime? I had become the news story.
When I reported to the London bureau you called me and told me that I had become an embarrassment to you and your chums in Cabinet that the column was over.
“The Jani Allan era is over,” you said. You were very matter-of-fact.
I was gutted.
I know now that you had already hired Pnina Fenster as my replacement.
I should have known. Why else did you give me a first class one-way ticket?
President F.W. de Klerk nominated you as ambassador-designate to Washington. It was a reward for the South Africa you had helped to create. Within three days of this nomination, you learned that you had cancer. Six months after you fired me, you were dead. You were 55 years old.
You were vaultingly ambitious, and I was insecure. In a patriarchal world I lived for your validation.
You were my needs answered. A father-figure whom I admired for your wit, charm and original mind.
Before we both become a footnote in history, let the record show I believe you used me as a cabaret turn.
At your command, I would interview – entertain – whichever foreign diplomats, Russian newspaper editors, politicians and celebrities were important to you/your career at the time.
Since you didn’t have the balls to fire me face-to-face, you pulled the rug out from under me when I was jobless, penniless and in a foreign country. Rather like a man who breaks up with a woman by text. I do think you owe me a fucking apology.
I was on a failed assassination list. (Between Hitler and the Pope.)
The right-wing nutters had planned to kill me with a crossbow. There is lots, lots more. I wrote about in my memoir Jani Confidential.
I have not yet read Matisonn’s God, Spies and Lies.
It is probably an important book that will help to explain the zeitgeist of that dreadful era.
Of one thing I am sure.
Tertius, you would never admit to being a spy. In your mind you were probably merely “finessing” the outcome of political events. DM
This column was originally published by the Daily Maverick on 4 December 2015.
Jani Confidential (2015) is published by Jacana.