Shaun Johnson: Charm without the smarm


Shaun Johnson

Arrayed across a memorial wall at the Mail & Guardian this week were rows of faded front pages of the paper, more than 40 of them, dating back three decades. The pages shared one thing in common: Shaun Johnson had written the lead story on each.

Some were on topics long forgotten, others were unforgettable: Mandela’s first press interview on leaving jail, for example. The display was an astonishing testament to Johnson’s reporting role at the paper, then called the Weekly Mail. But it also told only part of the story.

If you’d flipped inside those papers to the editorial page, you would have found Krisjan Lemmer, a tongue-in-cheek political gossip column and favourite feature that ran for years in the Weekly Mail. It can now be revealed: Krisjan Lemmer was Shaun Johnson — no one else would have hit upon an obscure character from a Herman Charles Bosman story as his column title.

From the moment Shaun arrived at the newspaper, he was different. To qualify for a job at the Weekly Mail you needed to look as if you’d just rolled out of bed after a hard night and didn’t own a hairbrush or a pair of shoes. Shaun combed his hair and dressed as if awaiting an interview at some giant corporation.

As various women noticed immediately, he was also handsome. A dinner party was elaborately contrived, its secret agenda concealed from him. Many hopefuls attended, but the winner was a beautiful graphic designer named Stefania, who stole Shaun’s heart that night — and with whom he remained until his death last week.

Shaun wasn’t initially hired as a journalist, to his considerable chagrin. He was hired to turn on the money taps to support our floundering editorial training project. Within months he had transformed it into an outstanding programme, the only one to take on black journalists. It might just be the Weekly Mail’s most enduring legacy.

The programme produced two future editors of the paper (Ferial Haffajee and Mondli Makhanya), a future managing director of Business Day (Mzimkulu Malunga) and a head of news at the SABC (Phil ‘Chippa’ Molefe), as well as some noted trouble-makers like Thandeka Gqubule-Mbeki. Not only did the trainees get to work on the paper, the best of them were offered scholarships at universities or newspapers abroad.

What was Shaun’s secret? He had a talent for charm, but he could do charm without smarm, invisibly. He could knock on locked doors and walk away with the money. He could talk you into doing something you absolutely didn’t want to do … and then, three days later you would wake up wondering: How did he twist my arm?

Shaun transformed the Weekly Mail newsroom into a revolving door through which entourages of the high and mighty were escorted to admire his training project. There was the seven-foot tall brick wall of an ambassador from the United States, or the four-foot and a bit ambassador from Greece.

You had to be careful where you stepped so as not to trip over a duke or duchess or a viscount or just a mere Sir. They came, they saw, and a good few opened their cheque books.

In the end, those were the connections that saved us. In 1988, the three loudest anti-apartheid weeklies, New Nation, South and ourselves, faced the guillotine under the State of Emergency regulations. New Nation and South fought back by waving banners and campaigning noisily in township halls, which did not ruffle a hair on the head of Minister Stoffel Botha.

Shaun was strategic. He organised a suit and tie for my colleague Anton Harber and marched him from one embassy to another. When the blade fell, a stream of phone calls from those foreign embassies gave Botha such a headache that we were back on the streets six weeks later.

Of course, Shaun was never going to remain on the small-fry Weekly Mail. Which is why in retrospect it’s hard to understand why we were all so gobsmacked when one day he was offered the deputy editorship of The Star — and took it. From then on he rose higher and higher, way out of our league.

Judging by the numerous obituaries over the past weeks, the Weekly Mail was a minor addendum to Shaun’s career, just part of a section headed: humble beginnings. But seen from the Mail & Guardian’s perspective, we have every reason to be grateful.

If Shaun Johnson had not been gifted with an extraordinary drive, ambition — and connections — you would not be reading this newspaper today. In our darkest hours, he ensured our future survival. For that, thank you, Shaun.

Irwin Manoim is one half of the founding editors of the Weekly Mail, the other being Anton Harber 

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