Anton Steenkamp: Judge with love of law, life and even a little levity

He loved to travel through Africa and was killed by a creature of the continent

26 May 2019 - 11:00 By CHRIS BARRON

Anton Steenkamp, who has died at the age of 57 after being bitten by a black mamba in Zambia, was a champion of human rights and a highly regarded judge of the labour court in Cape Town.
He wrote more precedent-setting judgments than just about any other labour court judge in the country. They were cited frequently in law journals and made a significant contribution to labour law jurisprudence in SA.
He was widely respected for his independence, integrity, fairness and balance.
Tributes to him have poured in from across the ideological and political spectrum. The militant Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (Amcu) praised him as a "man of integrity who contributed immensely to the South African labour market".
"The labour court has played a major role in transforming our labour market and judge Steenkamp contributed immensely to this cause," the union said.
In addition to their scholarly content, Steenkamp's judgments and comments from the bench were memorable for their occasional acerbity and references to Monty Python. He may have been the soul of fairness and decency, but even he had his limits.
In 2014 he ordered the police minister and national police commissioner to appear in court for failing to adhere to a previous order of the labour court.
When a transcription of court proceedings was inordinately delayed, he noted that the transcriber, from Eagle Transcription and Translation Services, had not lived up to her pay-off line to "soar like an eagle/sweef soos 'n arend".
"Instead she plummeted like a parrot in a Monty Python sketch."
He observed that an attachment to one of her e-mails, "Believe in your heart that something wonderful is about to happen", sounded an optimistic note.
"Unfortunately," he added, "belief in the heart is not enough; it is also up to the person doing the job to do something practical about it."
On another occasion, after delivering a judgment, he remarked that he was "not persuaded that justice has been served".
"The law is, in this case, an ass, but I am reluctantly forced to hand down an asinine judgment," he said.He berated lawyers for their turgid, incomprehensible writing."I find it alarming," he said from the bench, "how poorly legal practitioners draft documents, given that language is one of the main tools of the lawyer's trade."Whether or not the result of his wife Catherine being a teacher of English, he hated the sloppy use of language and was never too busy to vent when he spotted an egregious example, such as when a letter writer to Business Day wrote that he'd "lived near the sea for most of my life but had never rode its waves save for a handful of lessons"."Are your subs on holiday already?" wrote the judge to the editor.SERVICE IN THE NAVYSteenkamp was born on April 25 1962 in the small town of Eendekuil, in the Western Cape, where his father was the Dutch Reformed church dominee. He was a school prefect at Hoerskool Belville where he matriculated in 1980.He did two years' national service in the navy before starting a BA law degree at the University of Stellenbosch in 1983.He edited Die Matie, which was the voice of progressive, left-wing students. It was reviled for its anti-apartheid line by the more populous right-wing conservative student wing, which organised a petition demanding that he be fired.At a highly charged mass meeting to consider a motion of no confidence in Die Matie, which if adopted would have compelled his resignation, Steenkamp made an impassioned speech defending freedom of expression.The motion was defeated by 666 votes to 399.He helped start a branch of the strongly anti-government National Union of South African Students hitherto boycotted by Afrikaans universities, and was elected interim chairman.In 1985 he was one of a group of Stellenbosch University students who planned to meet the ANC in Lusaka. The then South African president, PW Botha, who was also the chancellor of Stellenbosch University, heard about this and their passports were withdrawn by the government so they could not leave the country.REPORTER ON VRYE WEEKBLADAfter graduating with a BALLB in 1987 he joined the newly launched anti-apartheid newspaper Vrye Weekblad, where he covered unions and workers' rights, which he always felt strongly about.Then he joined human rights law firm Cheadle Thompson & Haysom and worked closely with its client, the Independent Board of Inquiry into Informal Repression, which was investigating the role of state hit squads in assassinations and third-force violence. He assisted the board in placing its voluminous evidence before the Harms commission. The evidence was mostly ignored in its report.In 2000 he helped start the Cape Town office of Cheadle Thompson & Haysom. Five years later he joined the labour law department at commercial law firm Edward Nathan. When he became a labour court judge in 2010 this experience gave him a rare insight into labour law from an employer and employee perspective, which was evident in his judgments.Steenkamp, who drank deeply and joyously from the cup of life, had a daredevil streak that came into play when he discarded his robes. He rode his BMW 1200 GS motorbike to the equator, and did many other bike trips into the continent when he got half a chance.He owned a share in a Ford GT that he raced on the Killarney track in Cape Town. He drove a '62 Volvo 544 in the 2018 Galp Classic Car Rally through Swaziland to Mozambique.Steenkamp and his wife Catherine were in a campsite in northern Zambia while en route to Rwanda when he was bitten.He is survived by Catherine and two children, Stewart and Marion.1962-2019

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