SHAUN JOHNSON, 1960– 2020

‘A formidable presence who left a strong mark on the journalism of the 1980s and 1990s’

By Tim Cohen 25 February 2020
Shaun Johnson (Photo: Facebook)

Shaun Johnson, an icon of South African journalism and dedicated benefactor, has died.

Shaun Johnson, newspaper editor, benefactor, friend to Nelson Mandela and much more, has met his final deadline.

Shaun Johnson, 60, one of South African journalism’s most colourful and cherished characters, died unexpectedly in Cape Town on Monday, leaving the journalism community reeling in shock. 

Although Johnson was best known by the wider public as a journalist, his abiding passion and most concerted effort was as chief executive of the Mandela Rhodes Foundation in Cape Town. He was the founding chief executive and has been associated with the foundation, which is dedicated to building South African leadership, for more than three decades, retiring in 2019. 

Johnson blazed a trail across the journalistic firmament in the 1980s and 1990s, becoming a trusted insider to political heavyweights at the time, including President Nelson Mandela, a discreet and knowledgeable insider on the diplomatic circuit, and a writer of witty, insightful and poignant journalism. 

He was one of the early members of the Weekly Mail team, which he left to become Deputy Editor and Political Editor of The Star during South Africa’s transition to democracy. He then went on to edit several newspapers including the Cape Argus (which he returned to its original name after it had been known as The Argus for some years) and Saturday Star, and was the founding editor of The Sunday Independent in 1995. 

Johnson radiated likability and a sense of suave ease, but he was something of a complicated figure in journalism; a brilliant writer and a shining light to the then-new generation of journalists. But his insider status and powerful desire to be constructive made him vulnerable to the charge of being somewhat forgiving of clear faults in the new ANC administration and other organisations. 

Ultimately, Johnson resolved this infraction, if indeed it was one, by explicitly initiating and joining an organisation dedicated to the betterment of South Africa and simultaneously bringing the two great influencers on his life together, Mandela and Oxford University which he attended as a Rhodes scholar.  

Current foundation CEO Judy Sikuza said Johnson’s lasting legacy would vest in the 532 scholarships granted by the organisation. Johnson had a deep belief in promoting ubuntu and leadership in South Africa and the continent, she said.

His new role as a foundation CEO gave him scope to develop further his other passion, writing. After publishing a non-fiction book about the transition period called Strange Days Indeed, he embarked on a new course, writing a well-received fiction novel in 2007, The Native Commissioner, and had completed a second novel at the time of his death. 

In Barbara Ludman and Irwin Manoim’s book about the early years of the Weekly Mail, You have been warned, Johnson is described laconically as the only person on the newspaper who could wear a suit and make it look as though it wasn’t the first time he had put one on. 

Then editor of the publication Anton Harber said “he played an important role at the Weekly Mail (now the Mail & Guardian) at a tough time”. 

“He arrived back from Oxford in the late 1980s to do his doctoral research and offered to freelance for us if we let him use the newspaper’s name to get access to the right political circles. He quickly became an indispensable part of the operation, both as a writer and a political figure.

“When we were facing a banning order, he opened the door for us to an international anti-censorship network and was able to rally important support from the Western embassies and capitals, which became key to our survival. He had a formidable presence and left a strong mark on the journalism of the 1980s and 1990s. I am not sure that any writer or editor did better than him in conveying the joys and fears of the transition period, which he covered tirelessly.”

One of his most enduring friendships was with Andrew Boraine, former city manager of the Cape Town CEO of the Western Cape Economic Development Partnership (EDP). Boraine said he first met Johnson in the early 1980s when Boraine was the president of the National Union of South African Students, and together they established Saspu National, notionally a student newspaper but actually a broadsheet aimed at anti-apartheid activists. 

“Shaun was very dynamic, very capable, and very creative. We have been friends ever since.”

In his career, he could connect at the stratospheric level, eavesdropping for example on a conversation between Queen Elizabeth and Mandela, “but in my experience, he remained completely personable and humble”.

He was a remarkable storyteller, which he conveyed with incredible charm, lots of wit and a bit of style, Boraine said. 

Just to cite one example, he and Boraine and a few other Cape Town notables were members of something called the Seedy Club, a music club dedicated to South African indigenous music of the ‘80s and ‘90s. 

One of his great friends and former GQ editor Craig Tyson said, “We have lost a wonderful friend. We’ll remember him always for his warmth, his support of others less fortunate, his loving family, his heartfelt writing, immense knowledge, brilliant mind and the laughter, all sorts of laughter.”

He died of an esophageal rupture and is survived by his wife Stefania, and their daughter Luna. Funeral arrangements will be announced in due course. DM



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