South Africa


Advocate extraordinaire Sir Sydney Kentridge KC SC turns 100 in November

Advocate extraordinaire Sir Sydney Kentridge KC SC turns 100 in November
Sir Sydney Kentridge KC SC.

Sydney Kentridge KC* SC turns 100 years old in November 2022. There can be no doubt that Kentridge’s brilliance and hard work made a dramatic difference to many of his clients and indeed the wider community. 

Kentridge is regarded as the best advocate (barrister) in the English-speaking world in the past 50 years. He was born in Johannesburg to Jewish parents whose ancestors had originally come from Eastern Europe. After interesting and daunting service in the air force during World War 2 and then legal studies at Oxford he commenced practice as an advocate at the Johannesburg Bar.

His practice started with smaller briefs which demonstrated his aptitude and dedication to each case he took on. He practised at the Johannesburg Bar for about 20 years before gradually and ultimately moving to practise full time in all manner of cases at the London Bar. 

In London, Kentridge argued many of the most significant cases from the House of Lords to the European Court of Justice and the European Court of Human Rights. He continued practising as a barrister into his nineties.

On his 90th birthday, he argued as one of 15 barristers in a gruelling three-day tax case in the Supreme Court in London’s Parliament Square. Kentridge’s powerful argument succeeded. He is the oldest person to have ever argued in the United Kingdom’s highest court.

However, what will always dominate his legacy are his cases challenging the apartheid laws, policy and conduct by the apartheid government.

Thomas Grant KC recently produced a 289-page book deliciously describing in some detail just a few of those South African cases. The book is entitled “The Mandela Brief – Sydney Kentridge and the Trials of Apartheid”.

Apart from cursory chapters concerning Kentridge’s heritage and history, and a brief, somewhat anecdotally amusing epilogue concerning his London years  (in a major case involving music royalties Sydney in all seriousness referred to “singer Mike Jackson”), the book examines the details of the famous South African cases, the Treason Trial,  the Sharpeville Inquiry, the trials of Bram Fischer, Winnie Mandela, Dean ffrench-Beytagh and the Steve Biko Inquest in 1977.

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The hideous inhumane apartheid laws, and the nasty murderous conduct by the security police against those who they deemed “terrorists” were highlighted again and again by Kentridge before the apartheid courts.

On occasion an apartheid judge would rule in favour of one of Kentridge’s clients. But, generally, his clients received scant justice from apartheid judges blind to justice and fairness.

But Kentridge fought on. He analysed the minutiae of his cases working long hours night after long night producing arguments with unanswerable logic. His cross-examination of security policemen demonstrated them to be telling lies at every turn. Yet some, but not all, judges believed the lies and stark improbabilities of those rotten security police.    

There can be no doubt that Kentridge’s brilliance and hard work made a dramatic difference to many of his clients and indeed the wider community. 

But the vexed question is always raised: Should men and women of solid morality take part as lawyers in an immoral legal system. Should lawyers take part in the legal systems in, for example, Nazi Germany and apartheid South Africa?

To take part in these immoral and illegitimate legal systems, so some argue, is to legitimise the system itself. The apartheid government prided itself on the importance of the law. The National Party told the world that its system was law based and that those opposing apartheid were operating outside the law and had to be dealt with as such.

In many ways, lawyers like Kentridge, who robustly represented Nelson Mandela and his banned ANC colleagues, were both hated and welcomed by the apartheid government. They were hated because they were competent and showed up the stupidity and evil of the apartheid laws. On the other hand, so the Nationalists believed, Kentridge’s work showed the world that there was a decent legal system in place and those who obeyed the law would be protected by the courts.

Ultimately, Sir Sydney Kentridge KC SC can certainly be said to have done far more good by being part of and challenging the system. His work, in my view, gave legitimacy to Nelson Mandela and those whose dignity was trampled on daily. Without the courage and diligence of Kentridge and other lawyers like him, apartheid may have lasted a lot longer than it did.

This article was first published in the Cape Jewish Chronicle.

Anton Katz is a practising Senior Counsel, former United Nations special rapporteur on mercenaries and human rights, former Acting High Court Judge and an admitted attorney in New York. He was born and raised in Sea Point.

*QC (Queen’s Counsel) became KC (King’s Counsel) after Queen Elizabeth II’s death and King Charles III’s ascension to the English throne.


Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Errol Price says:

    I was priviliged to see Sydney Kentridge in action in court more than once and he was every bit as good as the writer suggests he was.
    There is a story I heard ( perhaps apochryphal- but it has the ring of truth ). A judge appointed by the aparheid government said :” when Sydney Kentridge comes before me , I never listen because he is so persuasive that I will be compelled to give a decision that I do not want.”

  • William Stucke says:

    What a marvellous man.

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