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Di Johnstone honoured for services to art, animals and community

For Di Johnstone, living in a community means being a part of it, even if you're only there for a finite period.

As an Australian diplomat posted to South Africa in the 1970s, at the height of apartheid, she took a great interest in the local art scene, and began collecting works.

But she later came to realise that these works were part of the country's cultural heritage, and decided to donate her collection to the Pretoria Art Museum.

Another Australian diplomat, Bruce Haigh, followed suit, and by 2005, the Ifa Lethu (Our Heritage) Foundation had been established, as a not-for-profit organisation that includes donations of apartheid-era art from several Australian collectors, as well as donors from at least 14 different countries.

Today, she is being officially honoured for her "significant service to international relations through support for creative arts in South Africa", as well as to the community of Canberra.  

She said she was moved and honoured to receive the Australia Day gong, but hoped it would be a chance to gain wider recognition for South African artists.


"I also hope that it will generate more Australian and international support for the wonderful creative arts projects of the Ifa Lethu Foundation, which is under a dynamic and inspiration South African leadership," she said.

Now retired, Ms Johnstone worked for the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade from 1973 to 2004, serving in Pretoria, Nairobi, New York and Los Angeles, as well as being appointed as the first Australian Ambassador to Nepal (and the ninth woman to be appointed an ambassador for Australia).

It was after that posting, in 1989, that she decided to establish herself more firmly in Canberra, and has been closely involved in myriad community activities ever since.

Among other organisations, she is a long-time member of Friends of the Albert Hall, and a dedicated volunteer with Domestic Animal Services. 

"When you're a foreign service officer, it's very hard to do that because you've almost got one foot in the air because you're on your way to a posting or between postings," she said.

"But once you settle, there is the opportunity to become involved substantially in your own community and to make a contribution and to make a difference. I'm one who feels that the world can always be made a better place, and I like to bring my skills, many of them learnt in government, to making that happen on behalf of the community of which I am part, not just for people but also for animals."