In the excerpt, Norman visits Joe Theron, the former music producer who introduced Hustler to South Africa and later founded its Afrikaans sister publication, Loslyf.
Norman is a London-based investigative journalist focused on dictatorships and conflict zones. Into The Laager is her examination of Afrikaner culture, from the Battle of Blood River to Orania.
Dina at the monument
During the second half of the 1980s, an increasing number of South African newspapers began to criticise apartheid. Many were censored or shut down, and in the end it was a pornographic magazine that took on the government censorship board and brought down the last pillar of the regime.
In the early 1990s, music producer Joe Theron decided to enter the sex entertainment industry. He wanted to start publishing Hustler in South Africa, so he flew to Los Angeles in an effort to obtain the rights. After trying unsuccessfully for three weeks to get an audience with American porn king Larry Flynt he decided to get more creative. He went to the offices of Hustler and rode the elevator up and down until Flynt finally entered the elevator in his wheelchair. After Theron delivered was quite literally an elevator pitch, Flynt invited him into his office. After the meeting, Flynt called his driver and asked him to take Theron back to his hotel to pick up his things, and then drive him to the Flynt mansion. He spent a week there, at the end of which Flynt gave him the rights to publish Hustler in South Africa, as well as in all other English-speaking countries outside the US.
In 1993, Theron launched Hustler in South Africa. It quickly grew to have the second-largest circulation in the country, despite being four times the price of any other magazine. With sales averaging 200 000 copies a month, Theron became a rich man.
But it wasn’t all smooth sailing. Pornography was banned during the apartheid era under the same strict censorship laws that targeted communist and anti-apartheid writings. After the fall of apartheid the standards were applied less restrictively, but Hustler magazine was still repeatedly banned.
‘The old censorship laws of South Africa were very old fashioned,’ says Theron. ‘When we launched Hustler in South Africa, we immediately started getting lawsuits against us. The main concern of the judges was the impact on children. We told them that we don’t make the magazine for kids; it’s for adults.’
Although most bans were lifted on appeal, the constant court hearings were time consuming and frustrating.
‘If you came to South Africa from overseas with a Hustler magazine in your bag you could go to jail. Yet I had travelled all over the West and seen porn available in First World countries everywhere.’
After having been dragged to court ten times, and having won all ten times, Theron decided it was time to take on the censorship board. He was eventually granted a session with the head of the board, Braam Coetzee, who would in turn decide whether or not Theron should have the opportunity to appear in front of the entire board.
Theron arrived early for his meeting with Coetzee. He wandered the 22-storey building and learned that there were 186 people working for the censorship board. When he walked into the meeting, he had only two questions:
‘Why don’t you want grown-ups to read these magazines?’
Coetzee: ‘Because it makes them depraved and corrupt.’
‘Then aren’t you scared to come to work every morning?’
Coetzee: ‘Why should I be?’
‘Well, you sit here on the 22nd floor of a building that is filled with 186 people who spend their days reading this stuff.’
Theron was eventually granted his meeting with the censorship board and its nine judges. He turned to one of the judges, an old lady, and asked what training she had received to avoid becoming depraved and corrupt through the material she spent her days reading.
‘Well, I’m an old retired school teacher,’ she replied.
He went on to pose this question to the other judges and, as expected, none of them had received any special training. They were just ordinary South Africans, and it soon became hard for them to argue that they would be less susceptible to depravity and corruption than any of their fellow countrymen.
A couple of months later Theron received a phone call from Coetzee thanking him for granting him early retirement.
‘We closed down the censorship board,’ says Theron. ‘We changed the whole law here. We set a precedent with regard to the sex industry. Censorship was the last pillar of apartheid.’
Theron then helped craft the new censorship laws for South Africa. By then he was publishing Hustler in England, Australia and New Zealand. His lawyers submitted proposals for new censorship laws modelled on the English and Australian versions that were by and large accepted.
But laws and value systems are two very different things. While the law henceforth allowed for previously prohibited material, such as pornography, the Afrikaner culture remained unconvinced.
In 1995, Joe launched an Afrikaans version of Hustler called Loslyf, slang for a promiscuous woman. It was the first ever Afrikaans-language pornographic publication. The first issue featured Dina at the Monument: a topless Afrikaans woman posing in front of the Voortrekker Monument. The issue caused an outcry among the Afrikaner community – and sold an astounding 80 000 copies.
Some 17 years later, when I enter the Loslyf office in downtown Johannesburg, business is significantly slower. As is the case for many printed publications these days, Loslyf is finding it hard to compete against web-based alternatives.
Like a wall of fame, old covers from the magazine’s heyday adorn the long hallway leading to the office of editor Donovan van Wyngaard. The covers boast poor-quality photographs of woman wearing the high-cut underwear typical of the 90s. They would not be considered especially attractive by today’s standards.
Although pornography still manages to outrage the conservative Afrikaner community, the novelty of Afrikaner porn has subsided. Van Wyngaard is also convinced that the Afrikaner aversion for pornography is completely feigned.
‘The Afrikaner community loves me behind closed doors but hates me in public. They’ll hide their Loslyf inside their Bible,’ he says.
Despite this, Van Wyngaard believes the Afrikaner man has become more sophisticated: ‘He is no longer a khaki-clad man in short pants with a firearm by his side. I want the magazine to reflect that change. I want to communicate that I know you’re not as idiotic as we thought before,’ he says.
In practice that means buying higher-end photographs from America and presenting them as local talent. In reality, only about 30 per cent of the women who appear in the magazine are Afrikaans-speaking.
Van Wyngaard used to work in television but lost his job owing to cutbacks. Now, both he and his wife work at Loslyf. Although Van Wyngaard is less than six months on the job, he tells me that he has already received death threats.
‘My family has completely disowned me and my brother won’t speak to me. We didn’t end up in this industry by choice, but because of financial strain,’ he says.
But somehow I’m finding it hard to believe that it was Joe Theron who corrupted Van Wyngaard and his wife. They are by no means new to the business. In 2009 they produced and marketed the very first pornographic movie in Afrikaans, Kwaai Naai or ‘The Incredible Screw’, which Van Wyngaard claims sold extremely well, somewhere between 10 000 and 15 000 copies. Then came the sequel, ’n Pomp in Elke Dorp, ‘A Shag in Each Town’, where a lookalike of well-known Afrikaans singer and womaniser Steve Hofmeyr plays the lead. This was followed by Amor – ’n Bok vir Sports, a story about a rugby player who cheats on his wife and gets caught on tape. More recently Van Wyngaard and his wife have embarked on a daring, mixed-race production called Forbidden Times, supposedly South Africa’s first mixed-race porn movie. But the success of the first film has been hard to replicate, he confesses; it is difficult to produce quality on a limited budget.
As I’m preparing to leave, Van Wyngaard pulls me aside. ‘Here, take this,’ he says, handing me a copy of The Girls of the Loslyf Mansion.
I look at him a little bewildered, and he quickly adds: ‘It also contains an interview sequence with Joe discussing censorship in South Africa.’
Just then, Joe Theron, founder of Loslyf and champion of South African pornography, walks into the room. When he notices the movie in my hand he frowns, visibly displeased.
‘I thought it might interest her to see your interview,’ Van Wyngaard comments.
But Theron ignores him and turns to me with stern instructions: ‘Make sure you put it away so that people don’t see it and get the wrong idea.’
‘And that’s coming from the owner?’ I retort.
He pretends he hasn’t heard me, but his voice softens a little.
‘Here, let me show you what you must do.’ He takes the DVD, strips its cover and puts it back in reverse, blank side facing out. ‘There you go. You wouldn’t want people to get the wrong idea,’ he says.