Shaun Johnson. Picture: AMBROSE PETERS
Shaun Johnson. Picture: AMBROSE PETERS

Many of us have experienced that feeling of vicarious dread of paying tribute to a departed friend or family member. The challenge has always been whether such a tribute re-acquaints us with that person or if it merely recounts facts of a life and endearing traits.

I first met Shaun Johnson at Rhodes University. He was my journalism and media studies tutor in my first year. So why do I mention tutoring? Just about anyone can set themselves up as a tutor and stories are legion of the incompetents, the professional know-alls, who do far more harm than good.

But Shaun was different. Even during the dark days of apartheid there was enthusiasm written all over him. He had a good sense of humour to break the ice as our country struggled with the impact of racist bigotry at an institution reserved for white people at the time.

I think his ever smiling demeanour was the secret to his success. He had this honest smile which almost said: You can trust me, I am on your side.

Shaun was a disciplined human being without overdoing it. He was ambitious, inspiring, pioneering and enterprising without avarice. He was a gifted writer; a teacher without guile.

Even at the peak of white privilege, Shaun was a golden boy who had no goose to lay golden eggs for him. He was self-made. So democratic was his mind and his soul — and so genuine was his interest in helping the few black people who then minister Chris Heunis gave “ministerial consent” to study at an institution reserved for whites.

While this may have felt like such a small moment at the time, as I look back on it, it exemplified perfectly how generous Shaun was with his time. As a journalism student and tutor, the creative work that mattered most to him was building a democratic journalism fraternity. It didn’t matter who Shaun was helping, and it didn’t matter what the colour of their skin was. It didn’t matter where they went to school. What mattered was that he was building a democratic nation amid the apartheid rubble.

In December 1986, Shaun was at the airport to pick me up. He drove me to my home in Katlehong. There was this whitey who was not afraid to drive me into a black township

He taught by example. I followed his journalism techniques. One of the first things I learned from him was that you could have a list of prepared questions for an interview, but you had to be a good listener to be able field follow-up questions. This sounds obvious, but it is not.

After we both graduated from Rhodes, we remained friends over the years and crossed paths at SA Associated Newspapers, then owners of Rand Daily Mail, Sunday Express, Sunday Times and, later, Business Day.

It was at Argus Newspapers that we rekindled our relationship. Shaun supported my fellowship stint at the Philadelphia Inquirer, my first overseas sojourn. 

When I returned from my year-long stint at the Philadelphia Inquirer in December 1986, Shaun was at the airport to pick me up. He drove me to my home in Katlehong. There was this whitey who was not afraid to drive me into a black township.

Ten years later, while I was working for Reuters, Shaun recruited me back to then Independent Newspapers as a correspondent in Washington. The “boss-friend” relationship continued as I represented the group from North America.

Even though we drifted apart during the past 15 years because of family and career obligations, we remained in touch, albeit occasionally. I called to praise his work. He did the same.

During the 2010 Fifa World Cup we had lunch in Cape Town and Shaun took me through his journey at the Mandela Rhodes Foundation. He was still the Shaun I knew. He had not lost his passion and love for whatever he did.

Two years ago I called him to complain that distance and family life prevented us from keeping in touch. We promised to make up. Little did I know?

Through this remembrance to Shaun I am learning that the greatest tribute we have to pay to a departed friend is the reverent acknowledgment of our obligation to remember them.

Through Shaun, I know that the strength of a nation lies in the character of its people. You and I will long remember the deeds of our deceased that were ever mindful of our trust. Shaun was mindful of our trust.

So, one of the great moral writers of our time has departed, leaving a broad legacy which spans decades. He was an activist, journalist, writer, editor, friend and mentor to many.

A great humanitarian and brilliant writer, Shaun’s legacy comprises two major themes: first, democracy encompasses universal values which do not assume a nationality; second, equality for every single human being in SA and the whole world, irrespective of race, religion or colour. Together, these themes constituted the message that characterised his professional life and long career.

Let us remember that this lifetime endeavour by Shaun should not be mistaken for an esoteric and intellectual exercise. It was, in fact, the epitome of a committed democrat rooted in the concepts of pluralist existence and common humanity.

Rest in peace Shaun. SA is poorer without you among us.

• Mkhondo runs The Media and Writers Firm, a content development and reputation management hub.