TSiBA’s Leadership Development Perspectives: Shaun Johnson, CEO, The Mandela Rhodes Foundation

By Karen Leroux, based on an interview by Anna Morris.

Africa is teeming with high-minded leadership potential that simply has to be recognised, mentored and nurtured in emulation of the greatest statesman of the twentieth century, Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela. That’s the opinion of Shaun Johnson: struggle son, Rhodes Scholar, award-winning novelist and media man extraordinaire. “With exceptions, the current leadership of our continent is a grave disappointment,” Johnson feels, but The Mandela Rhodes Foundation, by blending academic opportunity with personalised leadership development, is on the way to successfully moulding young Africans in the great man’s image.

Johnson, the singular chief executive of the Foundation, was himself a beneficiary of a Rhodes Scholarship. It gave him a life-altering experience that has led him full circle to the familiar space of intervention and untold possibilities. “I had never been out of South Africa before,” he explains. “I was at Rhodes University in South Africa, which I loved, but this was a life-changing experience. One of the reasons I am so absolutely passionate about what I do now, and about these young people, is because I know from personal experience that my life was utterly changed by that opportunity. I was transformed, overnight, from a provincial South African boy to a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford.”

The fruits of that transformation included growing confidence and a more cosmopolitan outlook. “It had a massive effect on everything that has happened since,” Johnson reports. “I am quite sure that the good things that have happened to me in my career, and the leadership positions that I have held, would not have happened – certainly not in the same way – without the gift of opportunity. That is why I am so dedicated to the Mandela Rhodes Scholarships, because I know what opportunities recognised and taken can do for people’s lives.”

In the words of iconic patron Nelson Mandela: “The central purpose of The Mandela Rhodes Foundation is to build exceptional leadership capacity in Africa. The bringing together of these two names represents a symbolic moment in the closing of the historic circle; drawing together the legacies of reconciliation and leadership and those of entrepreneurship and education. Already the Mandela Rhodes Scholarships are changing the lives of young Africans, who will play vital roles in the future of the continent. The achievements of The Mandela Rhodes Foundation so far have been remarkable, but it is its future potential that is most exciting.” “One of the reasons we are helping to develop these young people,” Johnson notes, “is that we want new young Mandelas to arise. We want people who, at a very young age – twenty-two to twenty-three is the average age here – think about the ethics of leadership, and not just leadership as power or patronage. All these young Mandela Rhodes Scholars are ambitious in terms of making a difference, but they are not the kind of cynical leaders who are in it only for the money and the power.”

Johnson’s personal journey to the space he comfortably inhabits now – leader, acclaimed author, and senior executive in the Mandela organisations – was influenced by a number of factors. Not least of these was his father’s despair in his role as a civil servant under the apartheid regime, a story poignantly recounted in the first novel Johnson wrote, The Native Commissioner. “My early years were spent in a country that no longer exists, called the Transkei,” Johnson recounts. “My father was a civil servant in that area at the time. He died when I was very young. We moved around the country and I ended up doing my matric in Johannesburg, at an excellent school called Hyde Park High. “In those dreadful old days, young white males were conscripted into the army. That happened when I was seventeen. I came out of the army and went to Rhodes in Grahamstown, which I loved very much. I became very politically involved there.”

Following his time at Oxford University, Johnson returned to the country of his birth. South Africa was in the throes of political upheaval. “One has to remember the context of the times, which affects one’s life so much,” he says. “This was the height of the struggle against apartheid. I went to Oxford in 1982 and came back in 1985, and the mid-eighties was the time of the States of Emergency. I became involved with the brave people who had launched The Weekly Mail, now the Mail & Guardian, and also edited and published a volume called South Africa: No Turning Back.” Johnson’s chosen weapon was the pen, not the sword. “I am a writer. If I have a gift, then that is it,” maintains the man who subsequently became one of South Africa’s leading political journalists.

“I grew up very quickly, because it was a serious time. During the Emergencies people were being locked up and people were being killed.” With disarming honesty, Johnson adds, “I always say to my friends – and when my daughter is older I will say to her – that if I had known then the risks we were taking, I would never have taken them, because I am not that courageous. However, when you are young, you do not know. As I say, we grew up very, very quickly because we were involved in very serious stuff.” The pain and effort expended by Johnson and his ilk paid dividends. “It led to the marvellous 1990s and the decision to release Mr. Mandela and unban the ANC. Of course our politics changed completely then. For my generation, the Mandela generation, these were the glory days of South Africa. Idealism was the order of the day, the Rainbow Nation and so on.” Johnson penned the 1994 bestseller Strange Days Indeed, an eyewitness account of the transition from apartheid to democracy, with a foreword by Nelson Mandela. An exciting time, indeed!”

His profession as a political journalist, editor and finally deputy CEO of the whole Independent Newspapers group put Johnson in constant contact with the first democratically elected president of South Africa. As a Rhodes Scholar with the ear of Nelson Mandela and his circle, Johnson was afforded yet another life-defining opportunity. “This is serendipity, how things happen that are completely unplanned,” he remarks. “In 2002, to mark its centenary, the Rhodes Trust entered into talks with Mr Mandela and his advisors. They said they wanted to make a contribution back to Africa, where Rhodes’s money was made. They wanted to set up something called The Mandela Rhodes Foundation. “I was probably one of a very few people in the country who was part of the Rhodes Oxford community and also known to and trusted by Nelson Mandela. I straddled these two different communities. The upshot of it was that my ‘big media career’ was suddenly cut short, and I was given the tremendous, yet scary, privilege of, designing this Foundation from scratch.”

In true Madiba fashion, the father of the nation embraced an unlikely union of his name with that of an imperialist coloniser. “When asked whether he was willing to lend his support to the new Foundation, Mr Mandela, being Mr Mandela, said, ‘Well, if we can put those parts of Rhodes’s legacy that are highly admirable – such as the Rhodes Scholarships – to work for future generations, let’s do it!’ ” Johnson recounts another anecdote that speaks of the generosity and reconciliatory principles that typify Mandela’s global influence. “At one point Madiba was asked whether he wanted this scholarship scheme to benefit only previously disadvantaged people in South Africa, or to be open to all. The essence of his answer was that much of the charity work done in his name is uplifting people who are in poverty, dealing with HIV/ Aids, all of those things. He wanted a part of his legacy at least to indulge only excellence and aspiration. ‘Simply find me the best young people’, he was saying. “The Board of Trustees had reservations, largely due to South Africa’s divided past. They wondered: ‘What happens if we do this on a completely open basis, and the result is that because of our history, all our Scholars are white males? That surely would not be serving the purpose, would it?’ Mr Mandela’s riposte: ‘Well, it would mean that you did not look hard enough!’”

As it turns out, these fears were ungrounded. Johnson gestures towards the photographs that grace the walls of the Foundation. “When our first class was elected for 2005, I could not have manipulated it better in terms of gender and race if I’d tried to,” he quips. “Mr Mandela was proved right, because without us manipulating it at all, what popped out was representative of what is out there, and every year it has been the same. Amazing! There is such talent that each year we have grown our numbers until we reached our current optimum level.”

Asked what experiences shaped him as a leader, Johnson’s response is: “Growing up in middle-class white South Africa. Coming at a young age to understand what was wrong in the country, and living through and finding a useful role to play in the magnificent change. What has shaped me and my generation – the Mandela generation – is that we straddle apartheid South Africa, transitional South Africa and post-apartheid South Africa. It is an overwhelming shaping experience for me.” His challenges have come in the form of dealing with conflict situations and in the understanding that leadership is never easy. “What has helped me,” Johnson affirms, “is to always say to myself, when in a very difficult situation, ‘How do I de-personalise this? How do I try?’ And if you are not in difficult situations, then you are not in a leadership position, because there is no such thing as pure smooth run. Not even Nelson Mandela has had a pure smooth run. “It is very difficult to take my own very fragile thinking and ego out of it. How do I delve down to a principle? What is the principle at stake here? The principle will more or less tell you each time what you have to do: whether you have to go through conflict, whether you can smooth your way through it, or whatever. I am still learning that,” he says.

There is an overriding quality that Johnson most admires in other leaders. “There are all the other things, charisma, all sorts of things,” he ventures. “Leaders are all different. But the bottom line is integrity when it is inconvenient. When holding the principled line actually does not suit you, it is not the easy thing to do. I think Mr Mandela embodies that more than anyone.”

What he values most about himself as a leader is the simple fact that he has been given the opportunity to make a contribution. “I would say that what makes me effective in this context is that I had been around the block so much before. I had learned the hard way how to run a complex company, and I could bring those skills to running an NGO. That is not usual. I am not trained to run an NGO. I was out there in the hurly-burly of the media and corporates. I think I have been able to do a good job here because I could apply those entrepreneurial principles to a charity.”

One of the biggest lessons Johnson has learnt about leadership development during his tenure at the Foundation lies in the areas of group dynamics and generational differences. “When we are identifying young people (or just coming to grips with how young these people are, that is something as well!) I have to remember to set my own generational understanding to one side,” Johnson maintains. “Although intellectually, in my approach to life, I still think of myself as a young person, I have got to understand that I must listen and learn. Whatever they are called now, ‘Generation Y’? – they think differently. Things that I take as absolute assumptions are not true for these young people, so I need to understand that.”

The Mandela Rhodes Foundation’s mission is as a leadership and educational intervention on the African continent that draws on the best of the Rhodes Scholarships experience of the last more than a century, but keeps young people here, says Johnson. “Our four principles, which are based on the best achievements of Mandela and Rhodes, are reconciliation, education, entrepreneurship – which Africa needs particularly – and leadership. So the acronym is REEL. “Our definition of leadership is very, very broad,” Johnson continues. “It does not mean necessarily becoming president of the country, (although we would not mind if you did!) but the real goal is ethical, excellent leadership in your field. While we demand a level of academic excellence, it is not a purely academic scholarship. There are applicants who had better academic results than some of our elected Scholars, but that is all they did. Mandela Rhodes Scholars must be well-rounded individuals with leadership potential, under the age of 30, from anywhere in Africa. The only other criterion is that they must study at a South African university.

The Scholarship provides blanket financial aid over a maximum of two years of study. “We want to make the experience equal for those who have come through a nice middle-class education, like I did, and those who grew up in a tin shanty,” Johnson asserts. Thus, he explains, the Foundation is intent on “spending as much time thinking about the input side as about what happens afterwards.” “Three times a year, in a very safe environment, we put the group in a room and let them learn from each other and from us,” he continues. “It is an extraordinary experience, because the young Rwandan guy, somebody from Soweto, and somebody from Bishopscourt – they just learn so much from each other’s life stories. Then we put it in a broad framework. What we mean by leadership is an ethical, Mandela-like approach to leadership. What does reconciliation actually mean? What is entrepreneurship and why does it have a bad name among so many young people? What do we mean by educational opportunities? And so on.” Since the students are different each year, the dynamics of these gatherings change. ”But each year, every single one of the Scholars says meeting the other Scholars and getting to know them was life changing,” Johnson reports.

This intensive communication also creates bonds that serve the students beyond their Scholarship experience. “So often, you will have a leadership intervention and scholarships that, when they come to an end, the students all go their own way and that is it”, he observes. “Ours stay involved through the alumni association, the Community of Mandela Rhodes Scholars. And again, we spend as much time on the input and output as we do on the actual scholarship period itself, which I think makes us quite unique.” Another unique element of the Scholarships is the personal attention each student receives. “Unlike with a mass bursary,” Johnson says, “I and my colleagues know who each Mandela Rhodes Scholar is, how they did in their degree, where they are now, and when we last saw them. It is highly personal and individualised. We really adopt them and try to act as mentors to them.”

Asked whether the Foundation will prove a successful catalyst for its protégés, Johnson wryly replies, “It is too early to tell, as the Chinese said about the French Revolution more than a century after it took place! Remember, our first group is only five years out into the world, so we do not know. “But success, for us, is an unscientific thing. It is if the Scholars themselves feel they have done more, or done better, with their own raw material, than they would have if they had not had the Scholarship.” Johnson believes that leadership development has to constantly adapt and evolve. “I do not believe – and I have learnt this the hard way – that there is any customised, shrink-wrapped, perfect leadership model. I do not think that you can teach leadership in that way. You can only facilitate people to find their own limits of leadership. The content of our leadership programme will never be complete and never be perfect. It gets tweaked every year, and I am sure that in future others will bring their own approach to it.”

As for who inspires him, Johnson says, “The opportunity to work in the name of what Mandela means to humanity has proved irresistible. When I come to the end of it, I have to say that the two people who will have shaped the person I am, more than anyone else, would have to be Nelson Mandela and Cecil Rhodes!” What renews his hope in the field of leadership are the Scholars themselves. “I am so excited about them,” he says. “I wish I could see five years into the future. I and my colleagues have a completely unique insight into these generations of young Africans. I just think they are going to be wonderful human beings. “In my day, getting involved in politics was not a road to riches and comfort,” he reflects. “It was high risk. For these generations now, going into politics is a career path. What inspires me about these young people is that they are more highminded – and I am not just talking about politics. There are a few of them who I think are going to pop up and really make a difference, not only in this country, but in other African countries too. “They are a move away from the me, me, me, ethic,” Johnson continues. “I think the world recession has been a good wake-up call for everybody: materialism, purely on its own, kills you. It kills the soul and everything else. I see more and more holistic approaches to leadership. Ours is an example. It is the re-humanising of leadership training or leadership interventions.”

For a full transcript of this interview please visit 

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