Shaun Johnson: 'The making into a saint of human beings is very dangerous'

Peter Bills
Tuesday 09 February 2010 13:59 GMT

The subject was, unsurprisingly, Nelson Mandela and what has been a widespread deification of the great man's lifelong achievements.

Is there not a danger, I ask my guest, that the turning of this iconic South African into a virtual saint has left an impossible legacy for other leaders to follow ? After all, was not Thabo Mbeki seen at first as a sound pair of hands, an efficient, personable guy? Yet he became widely excoriated, leading to his premature departure from office and now President Jacob Zuma is under fire in many quarters.

Will not all South Africa's future leaders come up short when judged against Mandela?

Shaun Johnson is Chief Executive of the Mandela/Rhodes Charitable Foundation based in Cape Town. He is a former newspaperman, was recruited by Madiba to run this branch of his charity organisations and is also a best selling writer, widely known for his excellent first novel, 'The Native Commissioner', published in 2007. Few men are better qualified to assess the veracity of my question.

"The sanctification, canonisation, the making into a saint of human beings is a very dangerous thing to do" he agrees. "It's not fair on him, never mind the others. He doesn't like it at all and he said so. But it is what has happened.

"I expect quite a lot of revisionism to happen at some point, as people who have placed him on this pedestal, proceed to take him off it. He didn't ask for it but it is just a fact of life that he came to represent the best hope of Africa. And it would have been impossible and indeed foolish of us South Africans to look that gift horse in the mouth.

"An unfortunate by-product has been that impossible and unrealistic expectations are then set on others. I happen to believe that the complete turning on President Mbeki was seriously overdone. It did not understand the real human context which is that very many good things happened in that period and there were others that we are now saying were not good things.

"But the pendulum swung, in my view, too far."

Johnson is an intriguing character. He was a newspaperman for many years, revelling in the cut and thrust of our profession. He avows, as we all do, that he was fortunate to find such a challenging occupation; yet it was not his first big break in life. That was to become a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford.

He attended St. Catherine's College, which he absolutely loved. He went up in 1982, returning to South Africa in time for the launch of the 'Weekly Mail' in 1985. Not too bad a time to be a newsman in South Africa: the State of Emergency was declared 12 months later and momentous events were looming, like the sunrise, on the horizon.

Later, he was at the forefront of the launch of the 'Sunday Independent' and he assumed he would remain a newspaperman all his life, especially when he began to ascend to executive level, holding a position in senior management for more than 5 years within the 'Independent News & Media' group. But others events conspired to divert him, to lure him away from the world of newspapers.

"Unbeknown to me, the Rhodes Trust in the UK decided to mark their Centenary in a really important way by putting together the two totally different legacies of Rhodes and Mandela for the good of future generations."

It needed someone with experience of the Rhodes Foundations plus Mandela and South Africa, and Johnson was asked to head it, based in Cape Town. He admits the offer completely intimidated him and concedes he never regarded himself as a naturally courageous person. It took away all his certainties, represented a very direct step out of his comfort zone. But when he dithered over whether to accept, his wife cut to the quick over the issue.

'What can you discuss: you have been asked to do this in Mandela's name' she told him. What an honour.'

The decision was made and he has revelled in his myriad tasks associated with the role. "The opportunity to work in the name of what Mandela means to humanity has proved irresistible" he concedes.


But secretly, he confesses that newspaper infection which bit him so early in his life remains in his blood. "I miss newspapers, I always will and I miss just being involved in the industry. But you cannot have everything. And working here has been wonderful. I am sure I have one of the most fulfilling jobs in the world."

He attributes his ability to adapt, to the steep learning curve he encountered in his management role in journalism. "I learned how to run a major business in that time and it enabled me to build the Mandela-Rhodes Foundation as a charity and bring to that task real experience of how you run a big corporate concern. That has been hugely helpful."

But nothing could prepare Shaun Johnson or anyone else for that matter for the sight of xenophobic attacks inside South Africa. "As a South African, when I saw that photograph of the young Mozambique man burning in the streets of Alexandra….I'm sorry to be emotional but I wept uncontrollably because it took me straight back to what we got away from. I was a reporter in the Townships at the time of the hostile violence and the necklacing in the 1980s and early '90s.

"And for those of us who saw and smelt this at first hand, the most important words to me from Mandela were in his 1994 inauguration speech. 'Never, never and never again shall it be that one will oppress another in this beautiful land of ours'. And so to see this happen 14 years later was a terrible jolt."

And naturally, the consequences were calamitous for South Africa's image around the world, a point Johnson does not attempt to minimise. "I think as it becomes clearer to people just what was placed at risk in those few weeks, it would take a very naïve person not to accept that our international image, in my view, is currently at its lowest ebb since the State of Emergency of 1986. If that doesn't get our attention and get us off our backsides wherever we can do something, then nothing will."

He emphasises the point with his belief that many South Africans feel they have almost got to start all over again, to re-discover the spirit of 1994. "We're not just going to give up this Rainbow Nation stuff just like that; we're going to fight again.

"I'm almost 14 years older than I was when I thought the job was done so I'm tired. But it's worth doing. I think a lot of people, youngsters included, will stand up."

And, he insists, South Africa is in an inestimably better position today to do it all over again, than it was in 1994.

Just think, he says, what South Africa was facing at that time: an all-white civil service, a white army, no black middle class. Integration did not exist. He came through school without ever seeing one black person attending a class. By contrast, his daughter Luna who is now 9, is in what he calls a "wonderfully integrated school". No-one should lose sight of these things, he counsels. But, equally, he concedes that it has become clear that the job has not been done. South Africans have to do it all over again.

With that in mind, he is a strong advocate of this year's soccer World Cup, believing it will prove to be a unifying project. If it was needed last year, it is required even more now, he feels.

And finally, where to next for Shaun Johnson? His initial foray into literature, a process he found to contain a kaleidoscope of emotions ranging from angst and purgatory to elation and triumph, was a notable success. 'The Native Commissioner' took him two years to write but he had few expectations as to its success.

He actually prepared himself for failure, asking a good friend to read it and judge without emotion. He swore he would destroy the completed manuscript if his friend thought it unworthy of publication. Unsurprisingly, he was enthusiastic. Yet Johnson evokes the old, amusing quote about there being a novel in every newspaper writer and that is where it should stay. After all, he smiles "It takes a lot of time and effort to write a novel, even a bad one."

But this wasn't bad, it was brilliant. He says he always wanted to try his hand at some stage at literature, the Holy Grail of every writer. "It was a cathartic experience for me, forcing yourself to put up or shut up on your dream of being a real writer... as I thought of it. It was writing what I felt and what I feel very deeply about the subject matter and the characters in that book. I was utterly emotionally involved with it to quite a traumatic extent. By the end of the process, I did feel a catharsis."

And a follow-up novel is in gestation. He writes fast and writes prolifically, but fitting it into his (alleged) spare time is far from easy. The publishers urge, the distractions remain. Unearthing the balance in this often tortuous process is never easy.

A microcosm, perhaps, for South Africa as a whole?

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