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Marthinus Theunis Steyn (1857 - 1916) was an advocate, judge and last president of the independent Orange Free State (OFS). Steyn studied law in Britain and was there when the 1880-81 Anglo-Boer War broke out; an article he wrote promoting the Boer cause was published in the Manchester Guardian. On his return to South Africa Steyn was appointed attorney-general of the OFS in 1889, and when Frank Reitz resigned as president in 1895, Steyn succeeded him, winning the 1896 elections with a large majority. He wasted no time in cementing ties with Kruger’s Transvaal.
When Will Schreiner took over the Cape government in 1898, Steyn was regarded as an appropriate mediator between Milner and Kruger, and in May 1899 Steyn hosted the Bloemfontein conference at which he tried to facilitate negotiations between Kruger and Milner. However, he soon realised that Milner intended to use the uitlander (foreigners living and working in the Transvaal) franchise issue as a pretext for ending the independence of the Transvaal, and began preparing the OFS for war.
Towards the end of the war Steyn’s health failed and he lost control of his limbs, although he participated in the peace negotiations in 1902. He left for Europe to seek medical treatment later in 1902. Steyn returned to South Africa in 1905 and settled on his farm Onze Rust outside Bloemfontein. Although he had by then largely withdrawn from active politics he was involved in 1909 in the National Convention which laid the foundations for Union in 1910, and for a time it was thought that Steyn might be persuaded to stand as first Prime Minister of the Union, although his poor health did not permit this. During the 1914 Rebellion Steyn once more played the role of mediator and tried to prevent violent action on both sides.
For further information see:
Anon (1972) ‘Steyn, Marthinus Theunis’ in (eds) W.J. de Kock & D.W. Kruger Dictionary of South African Biography Vol II Pretoria: National Council for Social Research, pp. 707 - 716
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