OBIT: Shaun Johnson had a 'seemingly effortless ability to use words to capture an historic moment'

OBIT: Shaun Johnson had a 'seemingly effortless ability to use words to capture an historic moment'

Shaun Johnson was the kind of person who would inevitably leave behind a host of colourful memories, but there are two that I believe might best represent the immense person he was. 

One took place on the night of September 11, 2001 – now better known as 9/11.

I was editor of the Cape Times and we had been in the process of stripping the newspaper to fit in as many words and images as we could gather on the events in New York earlier that day.

As the afternoon passed into evening, our switchboard operator received a bomb threat. Soon the building was emptied while police dogs searched the six floors of the building for explosives. 

I met Shaun, who was then the regional managing director, in a bar off Greenmarket Square.

Needless to say, sitting outside the office while trying to work on one of the biggest stories of our generation was a stressful experience.

I was panicking and trying to draft an editorial comment with a ballpoint pen on the back of a cardboard cigarette box (I think we were off the Camel Plains and on the Benson&Hedges Mild by then – we called ourselves The Mild Things), fire instructions to reporters and sub-editors and so forth.

Amid all this, Shaun sipped elegantly on a glass of Sauvignon Blanc.

Then he took the pen and cigarette box out of my hands and was soon editing and amending my clumsy efforts.

Back in the office later, I typed the words from the cigarette box into the system and was astonished at how Shaun had turned my stumbling effort into an eloquent and insightful reflection on the events in a faraway country. 

And that might have been Shaun’s greatest professional gift: a seemingly effortless ability to use words to capture an historic moment. It was a gift that he exploited fully as a political editor on The Star during the transition to democracy.

His columns from the late 1980s to 1994 on the Weekly Mail and The Star – collated in his first book, Strange Days Indeed – stand today as an unmatched record of that time. 

He subsequently wrote the critically acclaimed and beautiful novel, The Native Commissioner, in which his gifts as a writer are again on full display.

The book also hinted at another part of Shaun’s life: a childhood scarred by a tragic event. 

The other memory came from May 10, 1994 – just two weeks after the country’s seminal democratic election – when we had somehow sneaked into an office in the Union Buildings from which we had a near bird’s eye view of Nelson Mandela’s inauguration.

There was a breathtaking moment when SA Defence Force helicopters flew past in a salute to the country’s first black president – a once unthinkable tribute.

I looked across at Shaun as this was happening and saw he was in tears.

And that was another big part of Shaun: a massive desire to see South Africa become a successful and thriving democracy.

There have been many other passages in Shaun’s life: his brilliant academic career at Rhodes University and then as a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford University; his years as an executive in Independent Newspapers, and latterly the sterling work he did as chief executive of the Mandela Rhodes Foundation. 

And of course, as a deeply committed and loving husband and father.

But I will remember him best as perhaps the most naturally gifted journalist of our generation.

He could write beautifully, but was also an accomplished designer, editor, analyst and, well, whatever it was he turned his hand to. 

Recently Shaun had been planning to get stuck into writing again.

He had plenty of it in him still and his tragic and untimely death has robbed South Africa of one of its most eloquent voices.

- Whitfield was the political correspondent on The Star when Johnson was political editor and then Johnson’s deputy editor on the Sunday Independent – which Johnson founded – and, subsequently, the Cape Argus.