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

JAN Hendrik Steyn, judge and public servant extraordinary, died at his home in Constantia, Cape Town, on December 30, aged 85.

Born in Cape Town on March 4 1928, Steyn had talented and energetic parents. His mother, Zerilda, was a pioneer of social welfare in South Africa, founding the Urban Housing League. His father, Hendrik, joined the Boer forces in Natal as a 13-year-old farm boy. He survived to become a gifted scholar in literature and theology at Victoria College, Stellenbosch, and later Princeton. Hendrik joined the Dutch Reformed Church ministry and was a tireless secretary of the British and Foreign Bible Society. The first Afrikaans translation of the Bible had the nickname "Bible Steyn".

Both his parents were awarded honorary doctorates by the University of Stellenbosch for their work. Their dedication to philanthropy left its mark. Turning 80, Steyn recollected that his mother had said: "Besorgdheid is die mooiste word in die Afrikaanse taal (Concern is the most beautiful word in the Afrikaans language)."

After matriculating at Hoërskool Jan van Riebeeck in Cape Town, Steyn graduated in law at Stellenbosch. He started practice at the Cape bar in 1950, after clerking for the later chief justice Newton Ogilvie Thompson. The early years were not easy. He lectured part-time at Stellenbosch and Cape Town universities, wrote for the Cape Times and did law reporting for Juta & Co, to keep the wolf from the door.

Aged 36, he became one of the youngest judges in South Africa’s history when he was appointed to the Cape bench.

Almost immediately he was drawn into what became the focus of his life. His interest in law was not for law’s sake; throughout his life it was for what law could do. He adhered to the aphorism that civilisation in a society is marked by the way it treats its criminals. He abhorred corporal punishment, especially when imposed for transgressions of prison rules. He felt strongly that bail should be fixed with proper regard for an accused’s means, to avoid breadwinners languishing in jail when they could remain in employment.

It was his conviction that as a departure point in sentencing, every effort should be made to keep first offenders out of prison. He was a pioneering advocate of non-custodial sentences rather than short prison sentences, which he considered both damaging and ineffective. He thought the death penalty repugnant, executing his duty to impose it only in the most exceptional cases, and he pressed for its abolition.

Steyn was an indefatigable prison visitor. One visit he arranged (inviting his colleagues Michael Corbett — later a chief justice — and Martin Theron to accompany him) had a dramatic sequel. This was a face-off with the prison commander on Robben Island, Col Badenhorst, and the head of the prison service, Gen Steyn. Badenhorst threatened a prisoner who, on behalf of the prisoners, was describing to the judges regular assaults on prisoners — which, he was telling them, Badenhorst tolerated.

The judges told the commander to let the prisoner speak, and they wrote a report that resulted in the commander’s removal. The prisoner was Nelson Mandela; the episode is appreciatively recounted in his book Long Walk to Freedom.

Steyn was concerned that future lawyers should know the social realities outside panelled courtrooms. In his years at the Cape High Court he assiduously took university students to see prisons from the inside. He also saw the need to educate the public, and to help former prisoners make new lives. He played a leading role in setting up the National Institute for Crime Prevention and the Reintegration of Offenders.

His ideas and energy — and perhaps his dash and public profile — did not always endear him. Chief justice Frans Rumpff told him bluntly at a cocktail party that he should decide whether he was a judge or a welfare worker. Steyn was taken aback, but Rumpff had put a finger on the fact that Steyn had concerns beyond the law: moving to a free society founded on the rule of law and the protection of fundamental rights, building a modern economy and, above all, urban upliftment were his grails.

In 1976, two things came together. One was that Steyn was paying the price of becoming a judge so young: he chafed at the confinement of the office and the vista of years on the adjudicative treadmill. The other was the Soweto uprising.

Steyn saw instantly the need for a co-ordinated response. He was instrumental in organising a summit of black urban leaders such as Nthatho Motlana and industrialists led by Harry Oppenheimer and Anton Rupert. From this the Urban Foundation was born: a nonprofit organisation funded by business (with international support) to facilitate access to housing, improved education and business opportunities for urban black communities.

Steyn was granted special leave from the bench in March 1977 to head the foundation (he resigned as a judge in 1981). He worked without let-up, as his parents had done, to raise funds and mobilise support.

A priority was legislative reform. Black people had no claim to title in urban areas: their very residence there was on sufferance, under section 10 of the Bantu Urban Areas Act. The fiction was that they were mere sojourners, with home and heart in the archipelago of Bantustans, to which (from 1976) "independence" was being granted.

Steyn knew that the grant of outright ownership of land to urban blacks would be seen as politically impossible for the National Party (with Jaap Marais’s Herstigte Nasionale Party harassing its right flank). He proposed 99-year leasehold, which, once accepted, he reckoned, could be melded into full title within a few years. Crucially, the strategy would create tenure where none had existed, reverse the Canute-like stance of government on urban black settlement, and promote an entrepreneurial black middle class stifled since the 1913 Natives Land Act and its post-1948 legislative extension. The strategy was ownership in all but name.

The proposals were received glacially by Connie Mulder and his officials at Bantu administration. This was in a meeting in 1977 in Mulder’s office in the then HF Verwoerd Building with Steyn and his legal team, led by DP (Lang Dawid) de Villiers QC. (De Villiers had powerful credentials: he had led the South African legal team in the World Court case over Namibia in The Hague, and was MD at the time of Nasionale Pers).

WWM Eiselen, Mulder’s director-general, was confident enough to attack Steyn and De Villiers head-on: "Judge Steyn and advocate De Villiers are supposed to know the law — yet they put up this sham. You know what you are trying to do: undermine our whole society."

There was silence in the lift down from Mulder’s office at Parliament. To the wide-eyed junior advocate, new to Cape Town, whose first brief had been to draft and translate the proposals, Steyn said trenchantly: "Now you know what it’s like to piss into a black south-easter."

He hated what he saw as a suicidal obduracy in hardened rightists such as Mulder. He was appalled at the plight of victims piling up in burgeoning blikkiesdorpe outside cities and towns, and still being "endorsed out" to Limehill, Morsgat and Dimbaza.

Steyn refused to give up. He had considerable charisma, eloquence and energy for the cause — again those parental genes. The political gale he had come up against in Mulder’s office had itself to yield to relentless economic and demographic pressure. When influx control was repealed, De Villiers called to congratulate Steyn: "There falls the first pillar of apartheid."

It is seldom remembered that FW de Klerk’s speech of February 2 1990, announcing the release of Mandela and the lifting of political restrictions, also announced the allocation of R2bn to an independent trust to be chaired by Steyn. Those who served with him — a recognition of Steyn’s standing — included Stanley Mogoba, Eric Molobi, Harriet Ngubane, Wiseman Nkuhlu and Mamphela Ramphele.

It grieved Steyn to see that a decade later, matric history textbooks claimed that the Urban Foundation and its successor had been an instrument to modernise racial domination.

In 1996, handed over the reins to Nkuhlu. He had been appointed a judge of appeal of Lesotho, where he served for 18 years, 11 as president of the Court of Appeal. His human and administrative skills were fully extended; he rebuilt the court after the military coup, saw in the new era of constitutional government, coaxed reforms in the profession, raised funds for a court library (to which he insisted students should also be admitted) and secured the publication of the kingdom’s statutes and law reports and advocacy training for practitioners. Simultaneously he served as a judge of appeal in Botswana and Swaziland, and as South Africa’s ombud for the long-term insurance industry.

Steyn’s gifts for persuasion and his shrewdness are illustrated by one example: his fund-raising for the court library in Maseru. He went to see a friend, Julian Ogilvie Thompson, and asked if Anglo American’s chairman’s fund might assist. Ogilvie Thompson said it was perhaps beyond its remit. "That," said Steyn sadly, "is a great pity. I wanted to name it after your father and my mentor." He got the money.

Steyn declined no public service. As a judge, he chaired several commissions of inquiry. He served for seven years as chairman of the Independent Commission for the Remuneration of Public Office Bearers. He served for 10 years as chancellor of the Medical University of South Africa (Medunsa), as chairman of the Community Chest and the Unclaimed Shares Trust, and to his death as a trustee of the Abe Bailey Trust. He derived great pride from his wife Ann’s work as president international of Reach for Recovery, a breast-cancer charity based in Geneva. He found time, too, to serve on the boards of several public companies, including Anglo American, Barloworld, Barclays (later First National Bank) and Metropolitan Life.

Steyn delighted in his friends, and especially the seven children, 15 grandchildren and a great-grandchild he shared with Ann, scattered from Hong Kong to Switzerland. Together they had tumultuous family holidays, where they revelled in his ebullience and warmth. All seven children, six spouses, 15 grandchildren "en vyf partners van die kleinkinders" celebrated his 80th birthday in a villa in Hvar, Croatia.

He was the magnetic pulse of the extended family. "Op sy kop", they learnt, was his highest accolade, while a comical misfortune was always "’n ligte mistykie". He delighted in the "ligte mistykies" of the mighty, although he was partial to tea with Margaret Thatcher and cricket with John Major.

Honorary doctorates were awarded to Steyn by Medunsa and the universities of Cape Town, Stellenbosch, the Witwatersrand and Natal. When he retired as president of the Court of Appeal of Lesotho in 2008, he was accorded a knighthood by King Letsie III.

Steyn narrowly survived a serious car smash seven years ago and coped bravely with pacemakers, a triple heart bypass and other tribulations of age. (These included being assaulted and robbed twice in his own home.) He made a pact with his wide circle of friends, whom he treated liberally with warmth and red wine: no one was allowed to discuss his health.

He continued almost to the last to write occasional media pieces: he was outspoken on what he saw as obvious corruption and a sustained assault on critical institutions of democracy, through media controls, secrecy measures and judicial appointments. It was not necessary, he said, to aspire like Lenin to seize the commanding heights of the economy and the state. He pointed to Franz Fanon, who said it was enough to control the neutral middle ground. He was anguished, and angered, by the fall from grace of the new society he had worked for.

The epitaph chosen for his father on his death was Esther 10:3: "he was great ... and accepted of the multitude of the people". It fits the son too. His besorgdheid endured to the end.

• Gauntlett is a former chairman of the South African Bar and Bencher of Middle Temple.