We are deeply saddened to hear of the untimely passing of Shaun Johnson. For those of us in the organisation who have known him for many years, the news was shattering. Our thoughts are with Stefania, Luna, the rest of his family and the many people in South Africa and abroad who counted him as a friend.
We were privileged to work with him as a colleague and to have him as a friend. In 2006 Shaun took on the role of Acting Chief Executive for the Nelson Mandela Foundation (NMF) while continuing to be the Chief Executive of the Mandela Rhodes Foundation (MRF). For a year he carried this enormous load with apparent ease. As Sello Hatang recalls: “He stepped in at a very challenging time for the Foundation, just as Madiba was providing the organisation with a new mandate while progressively stepping away from public life. Shaun steered the ship expertly. He did it for Madiba.”
Beyond his contributions to institution-building, Shaun had a stellar career in the intersecting realms of journalism, public deliberation and creative writing. When he was appointed as the founding Chief Executive of the MRF, Madiba spoke of him as “a young South African who, as a journalist and public intellectual, contributed enormously to the attainment and consolidation of democracy in our country.” His book Strange Days Indeed is a compelling account of South Africa’s transition from apartheid to democracy. And when later in life he turned to fiction, his award-winning debut novel The Native Commissioner explored some of the complex imaginaries of white South Africa during the apartheid era.
“Shaun was one of those very rare individuals who combined managerial expertise with creative flair”, says Professor Njabulo Ndebele, Chairman of the Boards of both the NMF and the MRF. “He was a wonderful storyteller and a deep thinker.”
Shaun leaves a strong legacy within the family of Mandela organisations. We will miss being able to pick up the phone and draw on his wisdom and insight. We will miss the opportunity to enjoy another novel from his pen. We will feel the loss of a great South African for the longest time.