Judge Jan Steyn. Picture: FINANCIAL MAIL
Judge Jan Steyn. Picture: FINANCIAL MAIL

JUDGE Jan Hendrik Steyn, known for tirelessly campaigning for social justice and tackling difficult bribery cases in the Lesotho highlands, died in Cape Town on Monday after a period of illness, according to an e-mailed report from his family.

Judge Steyn, who served as a judge in the Western Cape High Court, on the courts of appeal of Botswana and Swaziland and was president of the appeal court of Lesotho, became one of the youngest judges in South Africa’s history after he was appointed to the Western Cape High Court in 1964, at just 36 years of age.

He was known to have had a close bond with former president Nelson Mandela, who died on December 5.

He regularly visited various prisons and worked to help improve conditions there.

"It was through such visits to Robben Island that he first made contact with Nelson Mandela. The outcome of one such contact was the removal of the commanding officer and an immediate improvement in the conditions in which political prisoners were detained," said the family in their statement.

"His working life was characterised by service for the creation of a just and democratic society in South Africa. He believed strongly that all were equal before the law and that development is essential for the creation of a sustainable democracy," said the statement.

"Judge Steyn has made an enormous contribution as a judge. He has led from the front: he has taken some of the most burdensome and difficult cases," said Justice Michael Ramodibedi, a chief justice in Swaziland and court of appeal president in Lesotho in an article in 2008, after Judge Steyn had left the Lesotho courts.

Judge Steyn headed up the Urban Foundation and the Independent Development Trust, served on several commissions of inquiry, and was an ombudsman for the long-term insurance industry.