Text Messages | Words unwritten

The unexpected death of Shaun Johnson, editor, newspaper manager and until recently executive director of the Rhodes Mandela Foundation, has robbed South Africa of a fine writer.

It is an ordinary white cotton T-shirt that has lived folded up in a succession of wardrobe drawers for almost 25 years. It sports a rectangle of text, images and colours on the front – mainly green and gold. The largest text in the oblong spells out in bold block capitals: THE SUNDAY INDEPENDENT. An eagle is landing at the base of the “I”.  

The date under THE is 25 June 1995; beneath the final ENT can be read “Published in South Africa”. Immediately below the nameplate is a photograph with Nelson Mandela at left and former Springbok captain Francois Pienaar on the right. The heading to the photo says, “Not For 60 000 … For 43 Million”. Beneath the image, destined to become iconic, a headline runs the width of the page, declaring: “Triumph of the rainbow warriors”.

A day before, Saturday 24 June 1995, had seen the final of the Rugby World Cup between South Africa, the event’s hosts, and New Zealand, the most fearsome team on the planet. All Black juggernaut Jonah Lomu had widely been tipped to flatten the Springboks on his own, let alone backed up by 14 of the game’s best players. Come the day, something else prevailed, perhaps the hopes of a newly liberated nation. South Africa won 15-12, inspiring Pienaar to say afterwards, “We didn’t have 60 000 South Africans supporting us today, we had 43 million South Africans.” 

Rarely can a newspaper have been launched at a better time than this, a joyous story and headline fronting the first page of its first issue. It had been at the insistence of the new paper’s editor that 25 June was fixed as the launch date, and even had the sporting gods not obliged with a home win, that editor would have found a way to make the day and the launch memorable.

In a panel along the bottom of the page, the editor had this message for readers: “For us, this was a very important weekend for South African journalism, as well as sport. Welcome to the new South Africa’s new newspaper, The Sunday Independent. We’ll be giving our all to give you a world-class newspaper.” Underneath was a signature, that of Shaun Johnson.

The cruellest of fates

On 24 February 2020, a few months after his 60th birthday, Shaun Johnson died. Premature death is the cruellest of fates, and this was crueller still because Johnson had retired from leading the Rhodes Mandela Foundation for a decade and a half to pursue his sidelined writing career. In 2007, his novel The Native Commissioner won the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize for Best Book in Africa and so was a finalist in the overall Commonwealth competition. 

Long before that, Johnson had been using words to wonderful effect as a journalist. He was with the Weekly Mail (now the Mail & Guardian) before moving to The Star in Johannesburg as its political editor, later becoming deputy editor as well. Then came a defining moment: the creation of The Sunday Independent, conceived and launched even as Johnson was editor of its sister paper, The Saturday Star.

26 February 2020: The T-shirt commemorating the launch of The Sunday Independent in June 1995
26 February 2020: The T-shirt commemorating the launch of The Sunday Independent in June 1995

He was working in a difficult financial and ideological environment. The Argus group, long owners of major metropolitan newspapers including The Star, The Saturday Star, The Argus and Cape Times in Cape Town, and The Mercury and Daily News in Durban, had sold its titles to Irish magnate Tony O’Reilly’s Independent newspaper group. The squeeze to send rands to London and Dublin was on.

Ingeniously and persuasively, Johnson used the considerable income from the Saturday paper’s property advertisements to offset some of the costs of the new Sunday title, a move that blindsided O’Reilly’s lieutenants. Without that subtle jinks, launching The Sunday Independent might not have been possible at all.

Here I must declare a personal interest in the “Sindy”, for which I wrote two pieces a week: The Culture Desk column on the arts and culture pages and a Sunday Profile on page four of the main body. My affection for the Sindy is obvious, like my respect and admiration for its founding editor.

Sublime writer

It is one of the great sadnesses of South African letters that Shaun Johnson published only one novel. Had he not led the Rhodes Mandela Foundation, his energies, wit and way with words might have been devoted more to writing. Once, describing the view from his study desk, the sea’s horizon seeming to line up with the top of his computer screen, he said, “If I can’t write looking at that, when will I write?”

Write he did, with The Native Commissioner. Long before that there had been Strange Days Indeed, a selection of his best journalism. A classic of observation, analysis, commentary, old-fashioned reporting and high-flown reportage, it shows what a sublime writer we lost when Johnson became an editor, then a newspaper manager and finally the executive director of the Rhodes Mandela Foundation.

26 February 2020: The message from Shaun Johnson, editor of The Sunday Independent, to readers of the new newspaper.
26 February 2020: The message from Shaun Johnson, editor of The Sunday Independent, to readers of the new newspaper.

The white cotton T-shirt that bears a facsimile of the front page of the first issue of The Sunday Independent was a memento given to those involved with the Sindy. It came out of a drawer soon after the shocking news of Johnson’s death. What it conjured was the moment on a long-ago Saturday night that Shaun came up from the presses, with their huge rolls of flying newsprint making tomorrow’s paper, and entered the Sindy newsroom with a copy of the first Sunday Independent

Shaun Johnson was an editor and a gentle man, and more than that: a writer who will never die because his words will not fade away.

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