Anton Steenkamp in Missisi, Mozambique, on a recent motorcycle trip. Pciture: Facebook
Anton Steenkamp in Missisi, Mozambique, on a recent motorcycle trip. Pciture: Facebook

I knew this young man was an anti-apartheid activist at Stellenbosch University and that he was the rebellious editor of the student newspaper, so I had no hesitation in agreeing to employ him as a reporter. After all, being an activist newspaper battling white domination — in Afrikaans nogal — meant we were not exactly overrun by applications for employment.

But when Anton Steenkamp reported for duty in the Vrye Weekblad newsroom I had to ask him his name twice. He looked like a boerseun, with a mooi oop gesig, short hair and conservatively dressed, like a young Afrikaner any tannie would love to marry her daughter. (If only the tannie knew!)

Anton saw his stint at Vrye Weekblad as a form of diensplig, national service. He was an excellent student and natural leader, and with an LLB he could have made a lot more money and have had a lot more status in society.

We quickly learned that he was a thoroughly decent human being with a very sharp mind and an unwavering, fierce commitment to fighting for justice. Where I was more prone to using an axe in my journalistic activism during those days, Anton’s tool of choice was a scalpel. He was relentless and thorough, the kind of reporter whose stories never had to be double-checked.

But he wasn’t just a worthy, hard-working and brave reporter others relied on. He was one of us, us meaning a band of wayward renegades and idealists, Don Quixote and Hunter S Thompson fans. Anton was also a fun guy. He had joy in his soul.

When his brother Leon told me on Monday that Anton was dead after he had been bitten by a black mamba in Zambia, I sat in my chair for a long time before I could move.

After Vrye Weekblad, he quickly made a name as a brilliant labour lawyer at several prestigious law firms and became a labour court judge in 2010. I remember when we met soon afterwards that I slapped him on the back and said: “You, Anton Steenkamp, a f***ing judge?” He blushed and smiled, and told me his stint at Vrye Weekblad actually came up during his interviews “and it may even have boosted my chances”. We agreed that he had become the most respectable of all of us, that at least something good had come out of that wild adventure that was Vrye Weekblad.

We stayed in touch. He was a family man, but he was also a biker, a traveller, an adventurer. He never lost an ounce of the progressiveness he had when we first met, and he never lost faith in our democracy and our society’s inherent resilience and love for freedom. He believed deeply in the judicial system, and every one of his colleagues over the years would tell you how hard he worked at being a good judge.

The first word that came to my mind when I tweeted about his death a few hours after it had happened was “integrity”. Anton’s life, personal and professional, and his interactions with people, almost defined the concept.

Most tributes to Anton that I have seen confirm this. Trade union Amcu called him “a man of integrity who contributed immensely to the SA labour market”. University of the Western Cape academic Andries du Toit said: “An honourable, intelligent man. I mostly remember his laugh. We are poorer.” Attorney Richard Spoor tweeted: “A great and good man and an exceptional judge.” Academic Richard Calland: “Every single conversation I ever had with Anton was delightful. A gentleman in every sense of the word. The world is poorer for his passing.”

Advocate Tembeka Ngcukaitobi tweeted: “You were a wonderful human being. We shall miss you.” His friend Andrew Brown wrote: “He was an extraordinary judge, both firm and gentle in his court manner, courageous in his judgments, erudite and always committed to the highest standards of ethics. Anton brought his humanity to bear on every aspect of his professional life with unrelenting clarity.”

I hope Anton’s wife Catherine, and children Stewart and Marion, will draw some strength from these words and the tributes from many others who worked with him or appeared in his court. They all tell of a man of compassion, honesty and humility.

Anton Steenkamp was a special human being and one of the very best Africans I ever came across.

• Du Preez is publisher of  vryeweekblad.com