Shaun Johnson, 1959—2020, RIP

Shaun Johnson, award-winning author and renowned anti-apartheid journalist, has died, aged sixty.

Johnson passed away suddenly on Monday, 24 February, in Cape Town.

The Mandela Rhodes Foundation, of which Johnson was the founding executive director, said in a statement that he died of ‘natural causes’, and paid tribute to him as ‘a person of tremendous vision, energy, wit, humility, humour and compassion’.

Johnson spent his early years in the Transkei, before studying at Rhodes University and, as a Rhodes Scholar from 1982, at Oxford University. He returned to South Africa in time to become one of the early staff members of the anti-apartheid newspaper the Weekly Mail (now the Mail & Guardian), which was launched in 1985, just a year before the State of Emergency was declared, and was deputy editor and political editor of The Star during the transition to democracy. He went on to edit several newspapers, including the Cape Argus and Saturday Star, before being appointed the founding editor of The Sunday Independent in 1995.

Anton Harber, founding editor of the Weekly Mail, told the Daily Maverick: ‘He had a formidable presence and left a strong mark on the journalism of the nineteen-eighties and nineteen-nineties. 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.’

In 2003 Johnson was appointed deputy chief executive of Independent News and Media South Africa. The same year, he was asked by Nelson Mandela to establish the Mandela Rhodes Foundation.

At the time of announcing his choice of Johnson for the post, Mandela said: ‘I am delighted that Shaun has agreed to take up the challenge to begin to turn the ideals of The Mandela Rhodes Foundation into practical reality. He is a person I hold in the highest regard … [He] is himself a Rhodes Scholar and a young South African who as a journalist and public intellectual contributed enormously to the attainment and consolidation of democracy in our country.’

Professor Njabulo Ndebele, Chairman of the Boards of both the Nelson Mandela Foundation and the Mandela Rhodes Foundation, said ‘Shaun was one of those very rare individuals who combined managerial expertise with creative flair. He was a wonderful storyteller and a deep thinker.’

Johnson literary debut came at Hyde Park High School, when his writing was published in the 1976 edition of the annual youth anthology English Alive. His first book, the non-fiction bestseller Strange Days Indeed, which chronicled the years up to South Africa’s first democratic election, was published in 1993. In 1998 he edited South Africa: No Turning Back, a collection of essays on contemporary South African politics.

His first work of fiction, The Native Commissioner, was published in 2007, and became one of the most lauded literary debuts in South African history. The book was shortlisted for every major South African literary accolade, including the Sunday Times Fiction Prize and the University of Johannesburg Prize for Best Creative Work in English, and won the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize for Best Book in Africa, the M-Net Literary Award, and the Nielsen Booksellers’ Choice Awards Book of the Year.

The novel also received high praise from South Africa’s two Nobel Literature Laureates, JM Coetzee and Nadime Gordimer. Coetzee called it ‘a welcome step toward the reconstitution of the South African past in all its moral and political complexity’, while Gordimer commented: ‘Our past is fascinatingly unpacked … Penetrating fiction like this doesn’t give answers, it invites questions.’ The Native Commissioner was subsequently prescribed as an English setwork by the Independent Examinations Board in South Africa.

Johnson was elected Chairman of PEN South Africa in 2007, heading the team that launched the PEN/Studzinski Literary Award for original short stories in English by African authors (which replaced the HSBC/SA PEN Literary Award) in 2009. The winning short stories, selected by JM Coetzee, were published in New Writing from Africa 2009: Original Short Stories by African Writers. The book was published by Johnson & KingJames, a literary imprint co-founded by Johnson, at the publisher’s cost.

In 2004 Johnson was awarded the Centenary Old Rhodian Award by Rhodes University. He was recognised as a Distinguished Rhodes Scholar in 2019, and spent time as a Visiting Fellow at Harris Manchester College at Oxford.

Johnson stepped down from his position of leadership at the Nelson Mandela Foundation in 2019, sadly to give attention ‘to my sorely neglected first passion, which as you know is writing’. Johnson had reportedly completed a second novel at the time of his death, so perhaps his contribution to South African letters will continue.

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