Shaun Johnson and Nelson Mandela, a match made in reality
The late founder of the Mandela Rhodes Foundation was a world-class writer and orator, and a fearless political player
Shaun Johnson, who tragically passed away this week, was one of the finest journalists and most elegant writers I ever worked with. He was also, as Helen Suzman called him, a “brilliant commentator and perceptive political analyst” whose writings “rekindled our jaded hopes”.
He was my introduction to SA politics when I arrived from London to take over the running of the old Argus Newspapers group where he was the political editor of The Star, and I don’t think there was a senior minister in the new ANC government that he didn’t know intimately, all of whom looked up to him.
His book Strange Days Indeed, a collection of his articles — really essays — written from the late 1980s when he covered violent riots in the townships, up to the election in 1994, still provides a powerful insight into transitional politics in SA.
One of his biggest admirers was former president Nelson Mandela, whom he had interviewed shortly after he came out of prison and remained close to for the rest of his days, lovingly watching over the affairs of the old man until he passed away.
Shaun’s description of their first meeting, just a few days after Mandela came out of jail in February 1990, is a wonderful reminder of what an eye-opening event that was. Shaun had written about him many times but never seen him and now here they were, at number 8115 Vilakazi Street, Mandela’s matchbox-sized bungalow in Soweto from which he fled in the 1960s, meeting for the first time.
“For many years,” he wrote, “any snippet about Mandela had been seized upon in order to draw some mind-sketch of his near-mystical figure. But the man I met was human enough — tall, striking, grey-suited with an avuncular smile, a ready laugh and a strong, prolonged handshake. With the creases and furrows on his face, Mandela looks his age. But there is a curious, non-weatherbeaten quality about him, as if the cloistered atmosphere of prison has had an embalming effect.”
Shaun was also a gifted editor who would have made it to the top of his profession in any country he chose to work in. Ben Bradlee, who adored Shaun, would like to have recruited him for the Washington Post and he could have moved to Fleet Street effortlessly anytime he wanted.
In 1995 he launched The Sunday Independent with the aim of making it the leading intellectual voice in SA politics, which, for a time, it was, and refashioned the old Cape Argus into a widely respected newspaper. In later years, long after he had moved on, he mourned, as we all do, the sad deterioration in the publications he had lovingly tended.
His lasting legacy will be the hundreds of African scholars who have had the benefit of his mentorship and wisdom
Tony O’Reilly, one of Shaun’s biggest supporters, allotted him the task, in addition to his editorial duties, of running Independent’s international advisory board, chaired by Bradlee and incorporating some of the most colourful international figures of the day.
Its distinguished SA members, who Shaun helped recruit, included Jakes Gerwel, cabinet secretary in Mandela’s government and later Shaun’s chair; Eric Molobi; Wiseman Nkuhlu; and Mandela’s old doctor, Nthato Motlana.
Its UK contingent included Anthony Sampson, who consulted Shaun widely when he was writing Mandela’s official biography; Peter Mandelson; Ken Clarke; and Baroness Jay, daughter of a former prime minister. David Dinkins, the first black mayor of New York, and Andy Young, the first black ambassador to the UN were prominent members, as was Britain Mulroney, the former prime minister of Canada. Eminent and erudite though they were, they all wanted to hear from Shaun as much as he wanted to hear from them.
In full flow, Shaun could hold any audience enthralled.
His lasting legacy will be his beloved Mandela Rhodes Foundation, which he launched in 2003 with the backing of the Rhodes Foundation in Oxford, where Shaun had been a scholar.
The concept, he explained at the time, was that for more than 100 years, thousands of Rhodes scholars, including American alumni such as Bill Clinton, had benefited from the gold and diamonds mined in SA and had put nothing back. By harnessing together the names of Rhodes and Mandela — an unlikely pair if ever there was one — funds, scholarship and skills could be persuaded to flow the other way.
The Rhodes trustees loved the idea, so did Mandela, and Shaun set out in his usual determined and very persuasive way to make it happen.
The Oppenheimers bequeathed him the old Rhodes House in the centre of Cape Town — which Rhodes never lived to see — and one of his favourite stories was of taking Mandela into the building for the first time. The aging statesman paused in the lobby and looked hard at the bronze statue of Rhodes which stolidly looked back at him.
“Cecil, now we shall work together,” Mandela remarked, wagging his finger at him.
They needed money for the new foundation and Shaun knew his only chance of getting it was to put Mandela, by then in his late-80s, in front of potential donors around the world. They succeeded so well that when Shaun retired last July the foundation was funded in perpetuity.
His lasting legacy will be the hundreds of African scholars who have had the benefit of his mentorship and wisdom at Mandela Rhodes and of the thousands who will follow in future decades.
In recent years his health deteriorated and his lovely wife Stefania and daughter Luna, the centre of his universe, insisted he slow down.
His final project, which he shut himself away in an Oxford college to finish at the end of last year, was to be a book on Mandela’s mature years into which he had a unique insight. Its cover was to be a picture of Mandela greeting Rhodes’s statue, with a century — and a whole world — between them.
Only Shaun could have brought them together.
• Fallon is a former CEO of Independent News and Media.