South African journalism lost an icon this week, but perhaps the greatest irony is that Shaun Johnson hadn’t been a journalist for more than 20 years.
The second bitter irony is that he was only 60 when he died, yet he had packed more into his comparatively short media career than most journalists could hope to do in multiple lifetimes – and then went on to forge a brand new and as successful career as the founding chief executive officer of the Mandela Rhodes Foundation.
Johnson’s star blazed brightly across the sky and deservedly so. Dubbed the boy editor, he was deputy editor of The Star, editor of the Saturday Star, founding editor of the Sunday Independent and editor of the Cape Argus all well before he turned 40 – and then successively group editorial director of the biggest English language newspaper group on the continent, then regional managing director of its Cape operation and finally deputy chief executive officer.
A man of immense, almost preternatural, charm surpassed only by his ability as a writer, he brought a panache to an industry not shy of swashbuckling characters – and eclipsed them all; only Johnson could launch a brand new newspaper in post-apartheid South Africa on the very day that the Springboks lifted the Webb Ellis trophy at Ellis Park.
But Johnson wasn’t only, as Anton Harber pithily remarked, probably the only journalist who could actually put on a suit without looking as if he was off to get caned by the headmaster, he was also the quintessential modern newspaper editor leading from the front; as adept at crafting the front page lead as laying out the pages, subbing the copy, writing the analysis pieces in the middle, setting budgets, meeting them and having fun all at the same time.
He might have written his name in lights in this newspaper group, but his work extended far beyond that; as a precocious young journalism student drafting the business plan for what would become The New Nation, doing pioneering training work on the Weekly Mail on his return from Oxford where he’d been a Rhodes Scholar and even doing radio journalism on the legendary Capital 604 radio station.
Many media people took to social media and other platforms this week to remember. It is testimony to the man that every single one was overwhelmingly positive, unequivocally warm and generous – another unique achievement in an industry not always known for any of those qualities and certainly not in that trifecta when it comes to their own.
For South Africans who never knew him, there’s his two wonderful books to fall back upon; Strange Days Indeed, a collation of his week by week observations of South Africa’s tempestuous transition into democracy, unparalleled in its rich tapestry and scope, and The Native Commissioner, his award winning debut work of fiction, inspired by his own childhood growing up in the Transkei.
For all of us his greatest legacy should be in inspiring us all to be the best South Africans that we can be – because he was.
Originally published on 29 February 2020 in the Saturday Star