Meet RW Johnson: The man whose book may alter SA’s destructive trajectory

Our lives are punctuated by memorable events. For me, one of these was interviewing Rhodes scholar, Oxford don, author, journalist and political scientist Bill Johnson. His book, How long will South Africa survive? has topped the country’s best-selling non-fiction list for well over a year. The audiobook version which I voiced is also proving extremely popular. In 246 pages Johnson provides a compelling argument of a country whose leadership has lost their way. He does so with sufficient force to remove any room for doubt. Much as its conclusions will sit uncomfortably with many in the ruling ANC, the book is having an impact. After years of deluding themselves over a BRICS alliance which Johnson argues was little more than an anagram, South Africa’s political leadership has started to smell the coffee. Events of the past week – President Jacob Zuma’s engagement with Merkel and Obama – suggest the philosophical tide is turning, something required before economic policies can be steered away from their current destructive path. By doing what he does best – applying his intellect and communicating bluntly – RW Johnson has provided his country a massive service. He has helped frame an economic debate whose result can have only one conclusion – moving South Africa away from a depressing trajectory. – Alec Hogg  

Bill Johnson as his readers will best imagine him - framed by thousands of books in his personal library.
RW “Bill” Johnson as his readers would most likely imagine him – a towering intellectual framed by thousands of books in his study at his Cape Town home.  

Alec Hogg kicked off the interview asking Bill Johnson why he writes under his initials “RW’….

I’m Richard William Johnson. The first academic article I authored was in 1967 and you have to decide what you’re going to be called. In those days using initials was perfectly common and I did. After all, Bill is a familiar family name, you don’t advertise yourself like that to everyone. And nobody calls me Richard. So that’s what I ended up with. You immediately realise that you’re now stuck with that forevermore because obviously, you want all your publications to be under the same name.

You’re known as Bill to your friends, though.


Are you South African-born?

No, I’m actually English-born but my father was a chief engineer on tankers. So when the Suez Crisis took place and all the tankers had to go around the Cape, Mobil Oil (who employed him) ordered him out to Durban to set up a base for all the Indian/Pacific Ocean tankers – dry docking, etc. The whole family moved out there when I was a young kid. I went to school in Durban and did my first degree in Durban.

Being KZN, we have to know which school….

Oh, it’s a school you probably wouldn’t have heard of called Northlands in Durban North. I think the only really distinguished thing about Northlands – it was a bit of a blackboard jungle school at the time, no discipline at all, and lots of drunken teachers – is that it had very good athletics. It provided one-third of the entire Natal team from that one school. And it’s the only school which has had players on both sides in an England vs South Africa cricket Test Match – Robin Smith and Shaun Pollock.

Moving on to Natal University and then a Rhodes scholarship… is one selected for one? 

Well, it’s changed of course. I feel there is a degree of Affirmative Action now, which there certainly wasn’t then. It was then very much done by province. There were committees for each province in which old Rhodes scholars predominated. Firstly, you were individually interviewed by each member and then by the committee as a whole. It was quite a strenuous process. Anyhow, I was lucky enough to get one.

Johnson's fellow 1964 Rhodes scholar Montek Singh, architect of the Indian economic miracle and Deputy Chairman of India's Planning Commission from 2004 to 2014.
Johnson’s fellow 1964 Rhodes scholar Montek Singh, architect of the Indian economic miracle and Deputy Chairman of India’s Planning Commission from 2004 to 2014.

Then off to Oxford. Who were the other Rhodes scholars of your time?

I’ve written a book which just came out this year all about Oxford in which I show pictures of some of them. For example, Montek Singh (right) from India was one. He became Vice President of the IMF and he was the man behind the Indian economic miracle, actually – a very clever man, indeed. Gavin Williams was a good friend of mine. He was a Cape Province Rhodes scholar. I had many very good American friends who were Rhodes scholars there as well. I was just before President Bill Clinton. The musician Kris Kristofferson was there the year before me. There were a lot of memorable people, some of them became senators. That’s one of the funny things about being at Oxford. You end up with lots of famous people. In fact, three of my pupils were members of the previous British Cabinet – William Hague (Foreign Secretary), Chris Huhne (Energy) and Jeremy Hunt (Health). You just end up knowing lots of people.

It was an interesting time in South Africa in the early sixties and when did you did your Rhodes scholarship. You were involved in student and student politics. How close were you to getting into trouble?

Very close indeed. In fact, I was in trouble, really. More than once, I was hauled off at 5:00am for interrogation by Security Police. I had been involved in trying to protect Rowley Arenstein who was a banned Communist lawyer in Durban and the Ku Klux Klan was threatening to firebomb his house. We would stand on guard at night to try and stop this. It ended up with us having meetings with Rowley, which were then “banned” meetings because of the more than three people ruling. The Security Police caught us and we were in a lot of trouble. Indeed, ten days after I left to go to Oxford, they came around to detain me.  I was very lucky.

Barry Higgs, a close friend of yours at that time, wasn’t as fortunate…

Yes. He wasn’t a famous person in the movement, but he was a good man. He was also very funny. He ran Sechaba (ANC’s monthly journal) from East Berlin for a while and then ended up running a little bookshop in the West of England. I remember Barry with great affection. We were together with Mike Kirkwood who ran Raven Press later on. The three of us were on guard for Rowley. Barry died in his 40s. I think partly because of his torture by the Security Police. He didn’t have a very good heart anyway, but I mourn him. He was my friend.

Oxford, with a Rhodes scholarship, and then asked to stay on and teach.

Well, not immediately. I went off to teach at the University of East Anglia in Norwich for two years and was then offered a job at Magdalen – teaching – and so I went back to Oxford and then spent the rest of my academic career there. I taught at the Sorbonne in Paris for a while as well and of course, I was a visiting whatever at various places. But Oxford was my base after that. I loved Magdalen. I still go back there and relate to it quite closely. One of the nice things about an Oxford College is that it’s a community you remain a member of for all your life.

Johnson's close friend, fellow Rhodes scholar Mervyn Frost, now a Professor at King's College in London
Johnson’s close friend, fellow Rhodes scholar Mervyn Frost, urged him to retain his SA links by teaching terms at UKZN in Durban. Frost is now a Professor at King’s College in London

It’s a pinnacle for most people to be teaching at Oxford University. You decided to come back to South Africa. Why?

Well, I’d become increasingly caught up by the drama of what was going on and my great friend Mervyn Frost, who was Professor of Political Science at Durban… He used to say ‘listen, why can’t you come out in the long Oxford vacation and teach a term here’, and so I kept on doing that and it was a very good way of staying in touch. I would write for The Times and later, The Sunday Times of London and so, I would put all those things together and it was a nice way of spending time and staying in touch with all sorts of things. It just became obvious to me that with the end of Apartheid I wanted to come back to SA for all sorts of reasons. There was push and pull, as there always is. Teaching is a repetitive career and after 20-odd years you do find yourself going round and round the mulberry bush. You’ve done it all before.

You begin to think it would be nice to have a new challenge and you realise that you’re spoilt in all sorts of ways with what you had, and that you’re not going to find people as clever or interesting as the ones you have around you. Africa is full of its own interests and challenges, though. I’ve never been bored and I’ve never really regretted the move because it’s been a whole new life. I obviously had some very good, dear old friends here in SA whom I reconnected with but in addition, you make a lot of new ones. You do new things. There are new challenges. Change is good. In another way, which I think was very important to me, I had been an activist. I had been very involved in anti-Apartheid things and coming back at the end of Apartheid was joining up the bits of my life so that it all made sense.

I decided to come back, very much with a mission of trying to understand, interpret, and analyse exactly what was now going to happen, using whatever skills I’d gained in Oxford to do so. In addition, after quite a peregrination ideologically, I’d come back to being a fairly routine liberal, I suppose. I did feel you had to stand up for the liberal cause, the freedom of speech, expression, and all the liberal values which I could see were going to be under pressure in the New South Africa. That’s why I went to the Helen Suzman Foundation and I was very pleased to do so. I’ve been very pleased to see the rise of the Democratic Alliance and the strength of institutions like the Institute for Race Relations etcetera, because they have kept that flame burning, and it’s been terribly important to this country that they have.

How would you describe your political positioning? I read that in the UK you voted more Labour than anything else.

I’ve always voted Labour. Actually, I once voted Communist in the local election I remember, but that was for particular local reasons. It was to give a kick in the behind to a complacent Labour councillor. Look, the way I would discuss that is to say that I certainly was much more left-wing in my youth. I was Marxist and certainly, supported the ANC and probably the Communist Party although my mentor was Rowley Arenstein and he was a dissident communist, so it wasn’t always quite straightforward. The key thing really was that as with many other South Africans I’ve known who go to the far left, they’re then challenged by some situation and they realise afresh that they have been brought up with those liberal verities like free speech and they really believe in them.

That is the bedrock. Very often, you’ll find that people will peel off and say ‘look, I’m sorry. I cannot stand to see this, that, or the other principle flouted’ and that was how I felt. When I went over to England in the sixties, I assumed I would be with the ANC guys. I went to London and mixed with them but to be quite frank, I found them authoritarian, racist, and very illiberal and that offended my feelings about free speech and free association. I realised that if I were to carry on in that movement, I would have to kowtow to people whom I really didn’t respect at all. I realised that some of them might do anything at all.

In 1977, the first ‘How long will South Africa survive?’ was written. You revisited the topic and published the book with the same title last year. Did you have any inkling that it would be as popular and as widely quoted as it has become?

No. How can you know that? One hopes to be read but Alec, it hasn’t been widely reviewed. There’s never been a review in the Financial Mail or Business Day, which you might have expected.


That’s not for me to answer, in a way. I’ve never been invited to speak at any university in South Africa. I’ve never been invited to a literary festival. My wife (Irina Filatova) and I both write books. The Franschoek Festival goes on near us but in its whole existence we have never been invited, not even when one of Irina’s books got an award for non-fiction book of the year. We’re clearly blacklisted from these things. I just live with that fact. The way I would put it is that I was used to living under Apartheid in a state of internal exile. That’s how it was and I now live under the ANC in a state of internal exile. People are just as scared as they were of the Nats as they now are of the ANC. They want to stay onside. It feels terribly familiar.

Do you ever fear for your safety?

No, I don’t. I have to give the ANC Government enormous credit for that. The great gains of ’94 (well, 1990 because it happened under De Klerk, really); the abolition of detention without trial, the end of banning and all of that nonsense has been a huge gain for all South Africans and that has been preserved. I think we all feel that we have free speech. Many people are scared to exercise it but that’s because they’re foolish. They should. There’s really not that much to be frightened of I don’t think, although I have to say that at the moment, I’ve just done an opinion survey and looking at the results, it’s clear that there is a hypersensitivity out there now. Things that wouldn’t have gotten you into trouble 20 years ago, will now get you into a lot of trouble.

How so?

Well, the interviewers that we used for the survey were physically attacked and threatened. They had to be escorted out by the police for asking questions which would have gone down without the slightest difficult 20 years ago. One councillor rang up the head of the Polling Organisation to threaten her physically for daring to send interviewers into ‘his ward’. To be quite blunt about it, (which I tend to be) I think the point is that the Government and that side of things altogether; they know they’re failing. It’s perfectly obvious to them, as it is to everybody else and they’re very defensive and even paranoid about it. You have to remember that this was not in the script. The way they wrote the script is that the ANC would go on from strength to strength evermore, just gaining all the time.

It wasn’t supposed to falter, start losing, and failing. This was never part of the script. Moreover, the way that they have always constructed reality was that on the one side there are heroic revolutionary anti-Apartheid people and on the other side are terrible reactionary capitalist imperialist racist. Those are the two sides. If their side is losing, it has to mean that [more or less] Apartheid is winning. This makes them feel very paranoid and as I said, it’s just not in the script. Of course, this is a ridiculous way of perceiving reality but I do think that is the perception of many and I think it leads to this tremendous paranoid hypersensitivity. You can see it all over the place. That chap who got into trouble for talking about not choosing enough black advocates – he didn’t really say anything that bad.

Diane Kohler Barnard - the DA's reaction to her "weep of a mouse" was overdone
Diane Kohler Barnard – another politician who managed to “get into tremendous trouble” using social media, something RW Johnson stays away from.

This nonsense with Diane Kohler Barnard… Look, I don’t do social media. I don’t waste my time with it but all these politicians seem to get into tremendous trouble by using it. I don’t know why they do either. It’s done nothing but harm to Helen Zille and now, it’s harmed Kohler Barnard. What she did was a sort of ridiculous thing, which anyone could do with a flick of the mouse. To throw her out of the party and ruin her career over that is an amazing piece of hypersensitivity.

With the students taking to the streets, with the churches now starting to be heard; reading though your book, those are the two groups that can make change in a country. Up until fairly recently, they’ve been relatively quiet. How are you reading what’s happened as a consequence of that in the context of what you wrote about in How long will South Africa survive?

Well, I hadn’t really noticed the churches doing anything but I must say, I would love them to do so because they are vital. They are hugely important. They’re the most powerful members of civic society. They have a huge reach, right down to the bottom of society and across all racial groups. Nothing else can rival the churches in that. There’s no political party that has the reach that the Anglican or Catholic Church has (or even the Dutch Reformed Church, for that matter). I’d love to see them playing a more active role but I haven’t really noticed them doing so. I feel very differently about the students because I think they come and go and the people are making far too much fuss about this recent thing. They’re asking for nearly impossible things.

If they get their way and they get free tertiary education, the universities will collapse and no one will be happy. If they get their way and fees are frozen, the universities will gradually fold. This is a ridiculous thing and as I pointed out in an article not long ago; if Britain and America cannot afford free tertiary education, what on earth makes us think South Africa can? After all, I don’t actually believe in it being free because as we all know, to get a degree (even today), it is true that it will improve your lifetime earnings very significantly. Therefore, what you are giving people by awarding a good degree, is upward social mobility and higher life income. If you were getting something as precious as that, it’s perfectly fair… Why should poorer people contribute in order to enrich you in that way?

Why shouldn’t you pay some of it yourself – either then or later? It’s what happens in Britain or Australia where it’s income-related and if you don’t end up getting a good job, you don’t pay but if you do, then you jolly well pay back. I think that’s a perfectly good principle.

You call yourself an optimist. Many people who’ve read your book would say precisely the opposite. Where does your optimism stem from?

Well, my optimism stems from the fact that if you look at South Africa, we’ve come through such a lot. Think of the Anglo-Boer War: burnt lands, people herded into concentration camps, people sent into exile in large numbers, lots of people killed, a conquering army holding down the country, and huge dislocation of the black population who also suffered a lot in that war. We came through that, got our act together, grew, and prospered. We fought two World Wars and the Korean War and we got through Apartheid, which was dreadful. People were forced to move – black spot removal – and all the terrible things that went on during Apartheid, and we’ve survived that. We’ve come through that. It makes me feel that we’re pretty resilient.

The thing that always struck me was that I grew up with everyone saying South Africa was always about to collapse into revolution and actually, every time you came back after a five-year gap, South Africa was stronger and more prosperous than ever before. Even under ANC rule, which is about as inimical to economic growth as you can get, it has continued to be true. Average per capita income has grown, etcetera. I agree that now it looks like we’re going to go through some pretty rough times before we come out of this one but I’m sure we will in the end. Possibly or very likely with an IMF bailout and probably a regime change as a result. I think that will be all for the best and frankly, IMF conditionality is just what we need.

There are many headlines on a timeframe, which I didn’t read in your book. Did I miss something?

No, you didn’t. Look, I didn’t put in a time period because first of all, everything takes longer than it reasonably should, or very often. Think of Greece. Greece was bust in 2008 and had unpayable debts. Here we are, seven years later and they’ve patched together a ridiculous pact. We know that it’s still bust. We know it’s still got unpayable debts. It’s still not been properly faced but it’s been patched together for now. This is what often happens. Now, they’re lucky enough to be in the E.U. and we’re not but you have to remember for example when it comes to being down-rated by Credit Rating Agencies, they only do their ratings every so often in the year, and so it has to wait for them to go through these processes. Secondly, they hate ever having to downgrade more than one notch at a time. Because to do so, is to admit that you had it wrong before and then all your customers are very angry with you and say that means that you didn’t rate the risk correctly last time, because if you’d seen the possibility of that sharper fall, you should have told us. One knows that for those reasons, it will have to go through the motions that way but I would guess anywhere between two and five years really, for us to go through the credit downgrading, which would almost certainly produce the debt crisis we’re talking about.

Russian Professor and author, Dr Irina Filatova, is married to Johnson, whom she met while at a braai in Durban.
Russian Professor and author, Dr Irina Filatova, is married to Johnson, whom she met while at a braai in Durban where she was teaching.

Possibly regime change, as you say, at that point. Reading through your book, it appears as though corruption is so deeply entrenched, particularly in your old province of KwaZulu/Natal that it would take some kind of miracle to excise that from the system….

No, I wouldn’t say a miracle, although you’re quite right. It would be hard for countries to go back on that sort of corruption. My wife (Irina Filatova) is Russian and she says the Czarist regime was completely corrupt and so was the Communist regime – always – except at the height of Stalin’s terror when people were so frightened. They knew that any tiny slip-up or even the lack of one might send you to Siberia or get you shot. That was the only occasion she said, on which corruption halted at all and it has carried on quite smoothly through to Putin’s day – you have to give presents to everyone to get anywhere. She is wholly unsurprised by the doping scandal in Russian athletics for example.

If you go back to the 18th century in Britain, most ranks in the civil service and armed forces were bought. No competitive exams for civil service. Everything was done by corruption. That was the normal situation in Europe. If you go back to 19th century America, even Presidential elections were rigged it was so corrupt. Sure, the people have been able to clean things up. Never completely, but a lot. Obviously, we need some process of that kind and it can be done. I’m not trying to say this in a party political sense but if you lived in Cape Town, you saw what happened when the ANC were in power. They simply started to loot the place completely. Every week there was a new corruption scandal. Then the DA took over and there hasn’t been one since. Things are pretty reasonably run, I think. I wouldn’t say it’s perfect but they do a decent enough job and we have seen how it can be done. Just think of what’s happened in Oudtshoorn where even the Cango Caves Trust Fund was looted. Well, one knows that that can happen but I think they’re probably in the process of remedying it now.

Bill, when you talk to young South Africans – particularly those who’ve made a career for themselves internationally – would you suggest they come back to SA or is it going to be so long that they would probably be better served by spending time building a career offshore?

Well, I don’t tend to give advice on those sort of things unless I’m asked because I don’t feel as though I have any moral drive to do so. But very often I do meet young South Africans who have the opportunity to go abroad. They finished a degree and they’re thinking they might go off to London for a period, and they ask me what do I think. I always say two things to them. (1) It is a good thing to broaden your horizons and sharpen yourself up and if you go to London, beware. There are lots of extremely well-educated, hardworking young people in London and especially young White South Africans are a bit sloppy. Life’s been a bit too easy for them and they’re not used to having to work as hard and under that degree of competition so they’re going to have to lift their game if they go there.

The thing that surprises me, is that they do lift their game and they do very well. You wouldn’t bet on it, but they do. What I say to them is, Listen. You will make up your own mind whether you want to come back or whether you want to stay there. The point is, if you go and you want to stay there, then okay. That’s your decision. If you decide to come back, then the experience you had in London, New York, or whatever it is, will stand you in extremely good stead when you come back here and you will be pretty ‘cutting edge’ compared to many of the people here. You’ll bring back with you, valuable things from your experience. It can work well either way and I’ve seen both sorts of cases.

I met with a lot of young South Africans in London during September and many of them want to return, but they’re fearful. After reading your book, they might be more fearful.

Well, I don’t want them to be. I’m not trying to achieve that effect at all. I’m trying to be relentlessly realistic and look things in the face. That’s my job, as it were. I’m not a prophet or a missionary. My job is to try to understand, analyse, and then write it up. That’s why I came back – to do that job. To do that, I have to be very realistic. There’s so much fluff and politically correct nonsense written (as you know), which doesn’t go anywhere, that it’s very important not to be taken in by that sort of nonsense. I’m not trying to achieve any particular effect on people. They must make of it what they want. I must say that on that side, I am continually struck by the way that many friends – their younger children who have stayed in this country have done quite well for themselves. They’ve found niches of one sort or another. They’ve become well-educated. They’re doctors. They’re this, that, and the other. Even if they are in areas where you might not expect them to prosper, they still do because at the end of the day, to be well-educated and well-trained and to have the Protestant ethic, is very powerful. You just become indispensable.

One of the alternatives or the low road you outline in your book is ‘the Zimbabwefication of South Africa’.

I don’t believe that can happen here, you see. We’re a fundamentally more urban country than Zim. The constraints here are very different. If you tried to do here what was done in Zimbabwe, you would very quickly have food riots in all the major cities and I think the regime would change because of that. There’s nowhere else for people to go. There’s no safety valve somewhere to the south of us, where millions of people can go. It’s much more likely that we’ll get social unrest due to the multiple failures of Government.

It’s quite striking to me that during the Arab Spring, South African Intelligence Services sent people up North to see what the cause was. They came back and said the key underlying reason was rising food prices.

Well, that’s exactly what we have now (and we’re going to get more of). I think that is something to be concerned about because it is going to hit people’s ability to feed themselves and that creates a whole new ball game. We could well get social unrest related to that or indeed, other things. I do not believe in a revolution of the unemployed. I’ve never seen such a thing in history, so I do not think think that mass unemployment on its own will create a revolution alone but there’ll be many different reasons for discontent.

I’ve just been doing an opinion survey. Without going into the details, the state of public opinion is one of extreme alienation from the Government. On many questions the number of people who take the Government’s side, through thick and thin, is down to 12 or 15 percent. It’s really quite small, and when you consider they got 62 percent  in the last election that’s pretty, remarkable.

The alienation is of course, particularly notable in the racial minorities and the point that I make in my analysis of this data is to say ‘look, these are very worrying figures in a general way but they are even more worrying when you consider that we are about to enter what could be a prolonged recession, which will test everything very hard and to go into that with the degree of alienation from Government, which already exists’. In the survey we’ve found 49.8 percent of all Coloureds are saying that this Government is less accountable to the people than the apartheid government was, for example.

So tighten your seat belts for what’s coming?

Yes, I’m just saying, we’re going to be going through rough weather. There’s no doubt about that and look, it’s a very dangerous thing to say that things have got to get worse before they get better, because you always know things can get worse before they get worst still but I do think that that is the situation we’re in. Look, crudely speaking Alec, for the last five or ten years we’ve been told by all the major banks and agencies, and whatnot, you’ve got to do four things:

  • You’ve got to reform your education system – it’s failing horribly.
  • You’ve got to do something about civil service salaries and the huge numbers – it’s got to be cut.
  • You’ve got to do something to liberalize the labour market and
  • You’ve got to stop your nationalized industries from leaking money the way they do, either by privatization or whatever.

Now, those are the four big things you’ve got to do. The Government has done none of them. It hasn’t even attempted them. Now, of course there are other imperatives coming up, like water. Sooner or later, they’re going to have to do all four of those things and they’re dragging their feet all they can, but it won’t take away the necessity of doing them, and that will change the country very considerably, when that happens. At the moment, part of the trouble they’re in is precisely because there were necessary reforms of all kinds, which should have been carried out during the good years, and they failed. They refused to do them. Now, they’re facing the hard years and, of course, they’re much more vulnerable now because they didn’t do those things before.

The result is a sort of, compounding series of mistakes and you can see it with water very clearly. For years and years, we’ve read that 40 percent of water is lost through leaking pipes. They haven’t done anything about it and now there’s going to be a big drought. Well, Agri South Africa said years ago to them, “You’re so lucky you haven’t yet had to deal with the drought.” In other words, you’re going to have to be ready for it and of course, they’re not.

Just some quick answers, some of your favourites – your favourite author.

That’s very difficult, well, maybe Graham Greene.

RW Johnson's favourite academic, the late American astronomer Edwin Hubble
RW Johnson’s favourite academic, the late American astronomer Edwin Hubble

Favourite academic?

Edwin Hubble, although he’s dead now – a remarkable man.

Your favourite dead person, of all dead people?

I suppose Beethoven.

Your role model?

I don’t have one.

Your favourite university, outside of Oxford?

Stanford, I think.

Your favourite South African politician, either serving now or in the past?

I will have to say Helen Suzman to that.

Would van Zyl Slabbert be close?

Oh, Slabbert would be very close. I loved Van. Van was a lovely man and a great friend and I had fun with Van, more than I did with Helen although I had fun with Helen too. She had quite a sense of humour but Van was a great friend and I miss him.

Would he have made a difference, do you think, had he lived?

He made a huge mistake by leaving Parliament, there’s no doubt at all. Hermann Giliomee says he had a five-year attention span. If you look at his career, he got fed up and bored and he changed every five years, and it was a big mistake. Certainly, he should never have left Parliament. He left on the grounds that change could never come through Parliament, which is exactly where it did come in the end, and I think he was simply wrong about that. Had he stayed, he would inevitably have been a large part of the transition. He would no doubt have been in the first Cabinet, etcetera. How much difference he would have made – I’m not at all sure because Van was completely taken in by Thabo Mbeki.

The late Frederik Van Zyl Slabbert, a talented politician and close friend of RW Johnson's.
The late Frederik Van Zyl Slabbert, a talented politician and close friend of RW Johnson’s.

Like so many South Africans, he wanted to believe the best and it was quite, obvious early on, that Van was refusing to acknowledge all sorts of things to be the case. I was horrified, as his friend, to see how he seemed to have lost touch with reality in that period. I think by the time he died, he had regained it. But I don’t think any individual… I remember Tony Leon saying to me that when he was a young councillor in Johannesburg that one of the tough guys at the top was some United Party guy who, in committee would always say, “Don’t tell me so-and-so is indispensable. West Park Cemetery is full of indispensable people.”

Favourite television program?

Do I have one? Look, I only watch the news, and some sports and the odd film. I don’t watch any soap or any regular program really.

Not even Downton Abbey or Simon Schama’s History of Britain?

No, I don’t bother with any of that. I’d have to pass on that because I just don’t think there is such a thing for me. Unless you say BBC News or something like that.

Your favourite historian of all ages?

Very, very hard to say. I mean, A.J.P. Taylor was a friend of mine, and he was certainly a very, very readable distinguished and historian but I find it very hard. Locally – I would say Charles van Onselen would be my pick.

Your favourite living global leader?

That’s difficult because Obama has been such a disappointment, and I feel all the Western leaders at the moment are very poor in relation to their predecessors. None of them are in much comp really. Look, you have to say Angela Merkel has been impressive, so I suppose I’d have to end up with her.

And dead, of the political leaders, through the ages?

De Gaulle, Bobby Kennedy, (to some extent Jack Kennedy, but Bobby more) and Franklin Roosevelt – wonderful. Franklin Roosevelt, probably the greatest of them all, I guess.

What is the favourite of all the books that you’ve written? You’ve written a dozen. Which is the one that you would like to take with you?

With me where?

Well, one day when you pass off this mortal coil.

Undoubtedly, it would be the book I wrote this year called ‘Look Back in Laughter: Oxford’s Post-war Golden Age’ because there’s a lot of my own life in that and there’s lots of lovely laughs and funny stories. Things that made me laugh and that has a personal meaning to me.

American legal genius Harold Koh - Johnson rates him the most brilliant of all his students in two and a half decades at Oxford.
American legal scholar Harold Koh – Johnson rates him the most brilliant of all his students he taught during two and a half decades at Oxford University.

Finally, your favourite student in all those years at Oxford?

Well, I’ll answer that in two different ways really. You see the two best students… The best student that I ever had was a man called Harold Koh, who is probably going to be on the U.S. Supreme Court before long. He was a North Korean refugee, who made it to America. He was a Marshall Scholar. In academic terms, I’ve never seen anybody as strong as Harold Koh. He really was remarkable. There were other people who were more fun to teach and who were more enjoyable. Oddly enough, Chris Huhne, who went to jail – he’s in that Cabinet picture, but not long after – was one of my favourite students. I am still very friendly with Chris. He has a wonderful sense of humour and he is a very clever man indeed. He was certainly one of my favourite students but I was lucky.

I had many students who went to work on The Economist, including one of the editors, even now, there are quite a few of my students on that paper, and some of them were absolutely, brilliant people. I was very lucky to have such brilliant students really.

Bill Johnson it’s been a privilege, thank you.

Sure, thanks.

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