Former rugby star Joost van der Westhuizen failed in his last-ditch legal attempt to halt the publication of ‘Joost and Amor: Behind the Headlines’, by entertainment journalist Gavin Prins. From a freedom of expression perspective, this seemed like good news – until you pick it up. REBECCA DAVIS read the damn thing to see what could possibly be so damaging in it, and now feels like she’ll never be clean again.
“This book offers insight into one of South Africa’s greatest sex scandals,” excitedly promises its blurb. It’s quite an interesting sales pitch, since there is literally nobody on earth who needs insight into one of South Africa’s greatest sex scandals, except perhaps a professional sexologist. A big sticker on the front saying “Buy me, you gossipy little perv” would have much the same effect.
Then there’s the fact that the list of great South African sex scandals seems rather short. (When the media talk about “sex scandals”, they depressingly often mean “rape allegations”.) After Zwelinzima Vavi was accused of rape by his employee, some commentators took it as an excuse to haul out the Greatest Sex Scandals back-catalogue. It was weak stuff. “Who can forget the IFP’s Narend Singh?” wrote eNCA, for instance. Almost everyone, I would suggest.
You can count memorable South African sex scandals on one hand, and I had to crowdsource most of the upcoming suggestions from Twitter after I could only dredge up Jani and ET. Old Nat Piet Koornhof’s affair with Marcelle Adams, a coloured woman 44 years his junior, which he described as “an answer [to apartheid] by deed”. (How flattering for Marcelle.) Jacob Zuma and Sonono Khoza, the daughter of a close friend. Public Enterprise Minister Malusi Gigaba and the wife of a civil servant. Steve Hofmeyr and, oh, practically everyone, though we don’t talk about that stuff since he became the self-appointed saviour of the volk.
So yes: Joost van der Westhuizen’s leaked sex-tape of 2009 can probably hold up its head in the pantheon of South African sex scandals, though that’s mainly because – much as is the case with our selection of “celebrities” – we have to take what we can get. In international competition, the Joost sex-tape scandal would fare more poorly. (Spoiler alert: they don’t do it all the way.)
The book’s blurb also describes it as being “Hard-hitting, often shocking, but ultimately uplifting”, which is about as accurate as explaining 50 Shades of Grey as “a how-to guide for watercolourists”. I am, of course, being unfair. You will indeed find the book hard-hitting, shocking but ultimately uplifting if you are: (a) a Media Ethics lecturer seeking to prescribe a what-not-to-do guide; (b) the leader of a Doomsday cult on the lookout for proof of the End of Days; (c) Joost van der Westhuizen, Amor Vittone or Gavin Prins.
Particularly the latter. Because this is not really a book about Joost and Amor so much as it is a book about Gavin. He says as much explicitly in the introduction: “This is my story”. Prins is easily impressed by the lustre of celebrity, it seems. “OMG! Amor Vittone had just hauled me over the coals because I wrote something about her,” he writes early on. “Wow! I was under the impression that the assistant of a celebrity’s personal assistant called you. Not the singer herself.” Whole chunks of the book are written in the style of a note passed to you in Maths class.
Gavin and Amor grow close. They share hard-hitting, often shocking, but ultimately uplifting phone-calls. [Actual quote:]
“I just want to be quite certain: Joost was also wearing True Religion jeans at the party, wasn’t he?”
“Yes. And didn’t my husband look hot?”
“I notice you call him ‘Koeks’. Can I mention that or would it make you feel uncomfortable? I want to put it very playfully in the editorial.”
“Oh, Gav, only our friends and family know that’s what I call him. Leave it out of the newspaper for now, okay?”
“You’re fabulous, Gav.”
We chart the fabulous Gav’s meteoric rise from Die Burger’s education reporter to Amor and Koeks’ confidante as the Rapport entertainment correspondent. Even as a young’un, Prins always had his eye firmly on the prize. “As a student, you knew you were becoming a journalist for the love of the cause, not to ride around in a BMW and live in Sandton,” writes Prins. Then adds in chummy, contradictory parentheses: “Further on in the book I reveal how my BMW/Sandton dream came true.” He doesn’t actually get round to explicitly explaining the formula, but if you send Prins R50 and a self-addressed envelope perhaps he’ll oblige.
His recipe is, however, fairly simple to divine. He befriends celebrities and puts up with all manner of small, passive-aggressive humiliations. (Joost charmingly insists on referring to his coloured boyfriend as ‘Quota’. Amor objects, though Gavin, seemingly, does not.) He attends their parties, throws back endless shots, follows Amor into bathrooms. In exchange for this taste of the charmed life (though it’s more Parys than Paris), he inserts flattering stories about them into a major national newspaper. On several occasions – he lists them all at one point, woundedly, to Joost – he receives reliable tip-offs of negative stories about the stars and protects them by not publishing them.
It’s a symbiotic deal. His access to Joost and Amor and their circle of friends, largely Afrikaans music stars, sees his career flourish. He is the darling of the Rapport editorial team because they know that the publication of Joost and Amor stories sees an automatic circulation bump. He appears on TV. He and Amor host a charity auction together. Some of the magic is rubbing off on him. Amor sorts him out a pair of sponsored True Religion jeans.
In exchange, Joost and Amor pump him for positive publicity with all they’ve got. They are extraordinarily media-savvy. If they give a story to Beeld, they’ll ensure that Rapport gets a different angle. Double the coverage, everyone’s happy. The couple sell the rights to their child’s birth to Huisgenoot, but ensure their good friend Gav’s not left in the cold: they instruct his photographer to be waiting at exactly the right position outside the hospital for a shot. Huisgenoot is furious, since they’ve bought an exclusive. Joost and Amor claim ignorance.
It all sours, of course, with the publication of the sex-tape story: a scoop Gav can’t very well refuse to write since it amounts to sheer circulations gold for Rapport. Joost and Amor are betrayed. The delicate symbiosis of their relationship has been shattered. They accuse him of base ingratitude for all those evenings when they bought him tequila in exchange for flattering coverage.
But not to worry, because it mostly comes right again when Joost is diagnosed with motor neuron disease. And if you find my tone here callous, it is nothing compared to that of Amor, who allegedly breaks the news to Gavin by telling him that she will “ask [Joost] to give you the story as an exclusive, okay?” Gavin “battle[s] to digest the news”, but his digestion is quickly overtaken by frustration as Beeld beats him to the scoop. “You were too slow, I chided myself.”
Fortunately, Joost’s publicist arranges for an exclusive whereby Joost uses Rapport to thank his fans. “Rapport’s circulation figures shot up – they were higher than they had been in a very long time,” Gavin records happily. “My story. It felt good.” Equilibrium has been restored to the world – except for the minor matter that Joost van der Westhuizen has tragically been diagnosed with a terminal illness. But try convincing Amor, who Gavin – and Huisgenoot – quotes as complaining that she believes Joost is faking his “motor neuron what-what”.
Joost and Amor: Behind The Headlines evokes a gamut of emotions ranging from mild nausea to full-blown existential despair. I put it down flattened with depression at the banality of what passes for our “celebrity culture”; at the priorities of the mass media; at the appetites of the public; at modern life in general.
And I’m not saying that I am any better, just so we’re clear. I caught myself finding it really quite interesting that the Afrikaans singer Kurt Darren goes to parties and demands that people put on his hit Meisie Meisie so that he can sing along lustily. Reading Joost and Amor was an exercise in self-hatred as much as anything else, and now I’m just praying for an asteroid to take us all out as soon as possible. DM
Photo: South African captain Joost van der Westhuizen gets the ball away during their first Test match against Scotland in Durban, June 7, 2003. REUTERS/Mike Hutchings
Some firing squads are all issued with blank cartridges with the exception of one person. This helps alleviate personal responsibility for the execution squad.