South Africa’s journalism community was shocked by the news of the death of Shaun Johnson, a well known editor, author and first CEO of the Mandela Rhodes Foundation on Monday. He was 60 years old.
“Johnson showed an outstanding commitment to journalism. He wrote the feasibility study for the New Nation newspaper in 1981 and was one of the early members of the Weekly Mail team (now the Mail & Guardian),” the South African National Editors’ Forum said in a statement.
“He was deputy editor and political editor of The Star newspaper during South Africa’s transition to democracy and went on to edit several newspapers including the Cape Argus and Saturday Star. He was founding editor of The Sunday Independent in 1995. In 2003 he was appointed deputy chief executive of Independent News & Media South Africa, the post he held prior to his current position. Johnson was a founding member of SANEF.”
Journalist and author, John Battersby, also a founding member of SANEF, said he and Johnson shared an overwhelming admiration for – and relationship with the late Nelson Mandela. “But it was Shaun he chose to head his foundation and inspire a generation of young scholars,” adding that Johnson was a, “force of nature who inspired many young journalists and scholars who benefitted from the work of the Mandela Rhodes Foundation.”
In a statement, the Foundation said it had lost its leading light. “Shaun was a person of tremendous vision, energy, wit, humility, humour and compassion. He poured all of these qualities tirelessly into building The Mandela Rhodes Foundation from the ground up, invigorated by Madiba’s vision of changing Africa through its young leaders,” it said.
“Shaun’s leadership was characterised by aspiring for the most audacious of goals, delivering to the highest standards of excellence, while inspiring and galvanising everyone around him. Through The Mandela Rhodes Foundation and his own example (Johnson was himself a Rhodes Scholar), Shaun made a great contribution to the realisation of the more humane world that Madiba dreamt of. He will be missed by all members of the Mandela Rhodes family: staff, Trustees, supporters, and of course his beloved scholars.”
Editor of Business Maverick, Tim Cohen, said Johnson had “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”.
Former editor of Business Day, Peter Bruce, remarked on Twitter: “My friend and former journalist Shaun Johnson died unexpectedly yesterday. A lovely man and a really good South African. I will miss him.”
He had a huge impact on the journalists he worked with too. Editor of the SA Jewish Report, Peta Krost Maunder, remembers him fondly.
“I am so shocked to hear that Shaun Johnson is gone. He was the most astonishing and inspirational editor I have ever worked for. He brought me over from the Sunday Times to join his launch team of the Sunday Indie and the relaunch the Saturday Star way back when,” she said in a Facebook post.
“I so clearly recall him asking me in my interview if I was ‘a little loopy-de-loop’. And when I told him that some may say so, he responded that I was hired. He encouraged us to find our own voices and styles in our writing and work. He encouraged us to do things we never thought possible. And we did! He really put the fun back into journalism for so many of us. We worked damn hard, but played hard too.
“He played a very important part in my career and had a huge impact on me as a journalist and editor. Rest in Peace, our boy editor Shaun!”
Johnson was also an author, whose first novel The Native Commissioner, won the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize for Best Book in Africa.
CEO of the Mandela Rhodes Foundation, Judy Sikuza, who worked closely with Johnson, said: “What Shaun has built in the name of Madiba and for the benefit of the African people will reverberate through the ages. But beyond that, it was his generosity of spirit, humanity and genuine faith in creating a better world through our Scholars that will remain in our hearts. Thank you for your love and belief in us as Mandela Rhodes Scholars, and specifically for your personal guidance and mentorship to me during the many years we worked together. Hamba kahle my brother. May your soul rest in peace.”
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