Tribute to Judge Anton Steenkamp
In May, Labour Court Judge, Anton Steenkamp, passed away suddenly and unexpectedly as the result of a black mamba bite while he was on holiday in Zambia. We feel the loss of Judge Steenkamp as being a blow to the bench as well as to our community more broadly. We mourn his passing.
We share this tribute to the late Judge Anton Steenkamp – the remarks presented on behalf of the members of the Cape Bar – by Adv Colin Kahanovitz SC* at the memorial service for Judge Steenkamp on Monday, 3 June 2019, at the Labour Court in Cape Town;
The members of the Cape bar mourn the passing of Judge Anton Steenkamp who died at age 52.
Born in Eendekuil near Piketberg, Judge Steenkamp lived a life of service. He believed in giving back and the outpouring of love and respect that his family has seen in response to his untimely death reflects what he has received back in return. I wish that he could be here today see how much he was loved and respected.
He died too young – at a time when although he had already achieved much in life he was only getting into his stride. As a judge he was the right combination of aptitude, diligence, intellect, precision, patience and kindness. I think that as a judge he had found his true calling in life.
Judge Steenkamp came from a background of legal service to the downtrodden and the oppressed and understood, as the late Chief Justice Arthur Chaskalson pointed out, the legal profession has no right to assert that it protects the public interest if it serves only the elite.
Prior to entering the legal profession Anton was an activist involved in starting a branch of NUSAS at Stellenbosch University in 1986. Afrikaans speaking students who opposed the apartheid government in their intellectual heartland were put under extraordinary pressure to conform. Anton refused – becoming a troublemaker as the editor of the student newspaper and a public supporter of ‘links gesinde radikale elemente’ unwelcome in Stellenbosch like the ECC and NUSAS. Later on he went on to work as a journalist at Vrye Weekblad at a time when that small and brave publication took on the might of the security apparatus of the state by exposing the activities of the CCB, Vlakplaas and apartheid death squads.
The making of Anton Steenkamp as a respected jurist commenced with his 11 years as an attorney at Cheadle Thompson and Haysom.
He had some remarkable teachers and mentors in those heady days of the beginnings of the now firmly established principles of labour jurisprudence. Employees were commonly dismissed without hearings; they were regularly dismissed for striking or because they had the cheek to join trade unions. Protection for these basic rights had to be fought for on a case-by-case basis. While there he was mentored by path breaking lawyers some of whom are now recognised as the father of the labour law we now practice – Halton Cheadle, Clive Thompson, Fink Haysom and Paul Benjamin.
Anton moved to Cape Town in 1996 to start with Paul Benjamin a Cape Town office of Cheadle Thompson Haysom. At the time I was a baby junior advocate at Cape Town bar with a mainly trade union based practice and I then started working together with Anton. Little did I realise that the diffident quiet guy taking notes next to the ofttimes pretend to know it all loudmouth advocates would one day show that he was more astute and able than most of the advocates he was briefing.
We also became friends.
From CTH he moved to better remunerated work as a partner in ENS (2002 -2009) and subsequently Bowman’s (2009-2010). Although he was initially happy to earn more that he had at CTH he found that he did not really enjoy working under a regime of having to meet fee targets and of having the value of his contribution to the law mainly measured by how much money one was able to make for a commercial law firm. Some years later the opportunity of joining the bench came as a welcome relief from the treadmill of commercial practice and more importantly presented him with the challenge and opportunity to show what he was truly made of.
One of his favourite stories concerned the victory he achieved on behalf of a large group of FAWU members employed at South African Breweries in Newlands. One of the perks of employment with SAB was that each employee was entitled to a certain quota of free beer. This entitlement was guaranteed in a clause in the collective agreement. After the case was won Anton was sitting at home one day when a breweries truck arrived. Some of the workers told him that as an expression of gratitude for what he had done the successful union members had voted to donate their monthly beer quota to Anton. The beer cases were then unpacked and stored in the Steenkamp garage.
He worked as a co-author on several notable publications including Labour Law Through The Cases, South African Labour Law: A Comprehensive Guide; Benjamin and Thompson, South African Labour Law; Cheadle Davis and Haysom; he co-authored chapters in books with amongst others judges Dennis Davis and Azhar Cachalia. He even wrote an article in 1991 in the Stellenbosch Law Review with the title “Die Regmatigheid van Ekonomies Sanksies teen Suid Afrika.” And here I should mention that although English was his second language his command and proficiency in written and spoken English was above that of many native English speakers. It probably helped that his wife Catherine was an English teacher at Grove Primary – and by all accounts a much admired and inspirational English teacher at that.
From 2004 to 2006 he served as the national president of SASLAW and in that capacity he was, as in all things, passionate and committed in his involvement in furthering the education of labour practitioners and in contributing to solutions for the many challenges that arose in the newly established system of labour courts. At one point there was a strong move was afoot to shut down the Labour Courts as a separate body and Anton as a SASLAW leader was involved in the ultimately successful opposition from the organised profession to the collapsing of a separate Labour Court system.
In July 2010 he was made a permanent judge the Labour Court after acting stints in 2005 and 2009. In a soon-to-be published review article Prof Paul Benjamin said this:
“Anton delivered timeous judgments that were succinct, clear and well reasoned. Among his most prescient judgments are Esquire System Technology v Cronje & Another (2011) 26 ILJ 601 (LC) in which he warned of the emerging abuse of restraint clauses and Dyanti v de Kock & others (2012) 33 ILJ 2401 (LC) which outlawed the practice of employers forcing employees to continue their employment through labour brokers at lower wages. In Henred Freuhauf v Marcus NO & others (2014) 35 ILJ 3407 (LC) he turns an explication of the principles governing bargaining council demarcation disputes into a literary tour de force.”
In the Henred Freuhuaf case the court was asked to review a decision in a demarcation dispute. The arbitrator had found that, whereas the activity of manufacture of trailers weighing less than 20 tons fell within the motor industry Bargaining Council, that involving the manufacture of tons trailers weighing more than 20 tons fell into the and under the jurisdiction of metal industry’s Bargaining Council. A passage in the judgement reads as follows “A trailer is a trailer is a trailer, Mr Snyman argued. And [while] it has been said that a rose by any other name smells as sweet ” , held the judge, this was not so when it came to trailers and axles, as making trailers weighing more than 20 tons fell into a different industry than their less weighty cousins.
His judgment in Beaurain v Martin NO & others (1) (2014) 35 ILJ 2443 (LC) starts as follows:
‘Fair is foul and foul is fair
Hover through the fog and filthy air.’
 This is a case about allegations of filthy air emanating from the foul toilets and circulating through the air conditioning of Groote Schuur Hospital. It is also a case about whether the applicant’s dismissal was fair or foul.
 The applicant, Mr Johan Beaurain, worked at Groote Schuur Hospital. He published photographs and complaints on Facebook about the state of the toilets at the hospital, as well as allegations that the health of patients and staff was being compromised, because dirty air was being sucked up and distributed through the hospital via the air conditioning system. He was told to stop. He did not. He was dismissed. He says that his disclosures were protected in terms of the Protected Disclosures Act and that his resultant dismissal was automatically unfair in terms of s 187(1)(h) of the Labour Relations Act. In other words, he claims to be a whistle-blower. The Department of Health and its MEC say that the publications did not constitute a protected disclosure, and in publishing them the applicant was in breach of his duty to the employer, as well as of a number of express workplace rules. As the applicant’s refusal to heed the instruction was persistent and deliberate, he was guilty of gross insubordination. This warranted his dismissal.”
Judge Steenkamp found that the applicant was not a protected whistle-blower and his dismissal fair. Maybe he did not need a touch of Shakespeare to reach this conclusion but why not if it helped to lighten up the page.
Michael Bagraim, long time Labour Attorney and Democratic Alliance MP, has referred to him as “one of the most even-handed and meticulous judges in the country”.
Prof John Grogan, our most prolific author on employment law has sent me this comment:
“Having known Anton for many years as an attorney, I followed his judgments with particular interest after his elevation to the Bench. They have without exception struck me as well-considered, thoughtful and elegantly drafted, and many have been cited in my books as authorities on a range of issues. I will also miss being in his court, where I always found him thoroughly prepared, courteous and incisive. I join everybody in expressing a great sense of loss at the untimely passing of a prominent judge and jurist.”
Anton loved to party. He loved blues music. He had tremendous energy for social engagements and his wife once said to me that Anton would go out every night if he could. He was a genuine petrol-head with a love of motorbikes, classic cars, new cars and anything else with wheels that ran on petrol. He was in a car rally with attorney Jannie Nel and their team was called “the wheels of justice.” He went on long motor bike trips into the bush and also developed that affliction of many middle-aged professional men, the misguided idea that wearing tight Lycra and riding a mountain bike made you look younger.
I asked practitioners who appeared regularly in the courts presided over by Judge Steenkamp to reflect on their memories of court life. What was it like appear in front of Judge Steenkamp? What was said included the following:
It was a joy to appear in his court as he had an infectious enthusiasm for the law. He loved to engage in a high level of intellectual debate and if he had a prime facie view before he came to court, he was always open to being proved wrong.
He was softly spoken and never found it necessary to shoot down an argument by humiliating or personally denigrating the lawyer who was advancing the argument.
If your client’s case fell apart under the glare of judicial scrutiny the client never felt that he had been denied a fair hearing because the judge seemed to have a close mind or was short- tempered or brusque and rude in court.
He delivered his judgements when he said they would be delivered and because of his enthusiasm for his subject matter many of his judgements developed the law and were reportable.
A Steenkamp judgement could be put in front of another judge with a high degree of confidence that because of his reputation it was highly likely to be followed.
There was one category of legal practitioner with whom Judge Steenkamp struggled to be patient, namely those who neglected to do their jobs properly for their clients; those who failed to serve their clients diligently and timeously. In the motion court he got to know which lawyers were the serial offenders who specialised in bringing condonation applications to excuse lateness or failure to comply with court rules. Although these applications were mainly due to the practitioners’ own failings and poor time management, they were almost inevitably blamed on someone other than themselves. Having come from the litigation trenches himself he was able to read between the lines.
His keen sense of humour made him special. He had a twinkle in his eye and was always on the lookout for a humorous turn of phrase that could add life to the drab black-and-white script on the page. Maybe because he had once been a journalist he felt that it was necessary as a judge to – if not quite to entertain – at least try to keep the reader awake.
Anton is survived by his wife Catherine and his two children Stewart and Marion. The children spoke lovingly of their dad at his memorial service on Saturday. They both have inherited much of his aura and quiet grace. They spoke of the deep love and respect that Catherine and Anton had for each other and what a blessing it had been to raised surrounded by this warmth and love. They sort of knew from others who told them this that their Dad was a big shot but for them Dad was really the Dad guy sitting on the couch in what they called his “happy pants” poring over Drive Magazine in search of life’s next adventure.
He will be greatly missed by members of the Cape Bar.
*Adv Colin Kahanovitz SC, is an Advocate of the High Court and member of the Cape Bar.