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Treason Trial and Biko inquest advocate, a hero: Sydney Kentridge turns 100

Treason Trial and Biko inquest advocate, a hero: Sydney Kentridge turns 100
Sir Sydney Kentridge KC SC.

Sydney Woolf Kentridge, who never flinched from taking on the state at its venal worst, is widely held to be the greatest advocate and barrister of his age.

The man who represented Nelson Mandela and others at the Treason Trial (1956-61), Bram Fischer (1965), the Biko family at the inquest into Stephen Bantu Biko’s death (1977) and the families of those killed at Sharpeville in the 1960 inquest into that massacre, will be celebrating quietly at his home in Britain with select friends and family today.

Kentridge was born in Johannesburg on 5 November 1922, to Morris and May Kentridge. Morris was a lawyer and politician who represented first the Labour Party and then the United Party in South Africa’s Parliament. By the time Morris stood down as a member of Parliament in 1958, he was the longest-serving member of the House of Assembly. He died in 1964.

His son, Sydney Kentridge, matriculated at the age of 16 from King Edward VII High School in Johannesburg and went to study at the University of the Witwatersrand, where, as a member of the student representative council, he voted against the segregation of students in 1941. In 1942, he volunteered to fight against fascism in World War 2. He served in East Africa and North Africa before taking part in the liberation of Italy.

After the war, Kentridge studied law at Oxford and returned with a degree in jurisprudence, to be admitted to the Johannesburg Bar in 1949. There, he built a varied and successful practice in, among other aspects, commercial law but, perhaps because he came from an intensely political left-wing home, he also took up human rights cases, which at the time was tough, unpopular, grim and a far cry from the glamour attached to many such cases today.

He initially took several cases representing the trade unions and trade unionists, on occasion chalking up big wins against the National Party government, such as the case where he successfully asserted to the Appellate Division in Bloemfontein that the government could not unilaterally suspend trade unionist Solly Sachs’s passport.

Kentridge really shot to prominence during the Treason Trial, where he was part of a team of lawyers under the leadership of Isie Maisels, QC, appearing for the 156 accused. Each member of the team was assigned certain of the accused to lead in the witness box. The young Mandela was assigned to Kentridge, who gave the former a daily lift to the trial in Pretoria in his car. During these drives they would discuss the trial, Mandela’s evidence in it and wider matters of the world. Mandela and all other trialists were eventually acquitted.

At the inquest into the Sharpeville massacre of 21 March 1960, Kentridge did the lion’s share of the work which proved most of the protesters were shot by police 100 yards and more away from the Sharpeville police station, and were shot in the back because they were running away. A total of 69 protesters died that day.

In 1965, Bram Fischer was disbarred by the Johannesburg Bar for skipping bail and absconding while being an accused in a case involving the Suppression of Communism Act of 1950, which made it an offence to be a communist in South Africa. At the disbarment hearings, Kentridge appeared for Fischer with Arthur Chaskalson (later to become Chief Justice) as his junior. Fischer was disbarred, although the decision was reversed posthumously in 2003.

Biko inquest and worldwide recognition

In 1977, it was Sydney Kentridge who appeared on behalf of the Biko family at the inquest into Steve Biko’s death. Through incisive cross-examination, he got to the bottom of what happened, cutting through the lies and deceit of the security police and the medical professionals who aided them. Although the magistrate did not find anyone guilty, the case caught the attention of the world and added impetus in the international isolation of apartheid South Africa.

It also made Sydney Kentridge, then in his early fifties, a household name worldwide. Kentridge, who had represented luminaries such as Inkosi Albert Luthuli, Winnie Mandela and Gonville ffrench-Beytagh, Anglican dean of Johannesburg, in court, was beginning to consider practising law in England rather than in South Africa, where he did not wish to become a judge administering apartheid law, and where he felt frustrated to have to appear as an advocate before judges whom he experienced to be below par.

In 1977 he was admitted to the Bar in London. For the next decade he shuttled between London and South Africa, keeping up two practices and homes in Johannesburg and London. Over time, he gravitated more to his British work and spent more and more time in London. He became the foremost barrister (the British term for advocate) in that city and the most highly respected in the Commonwealth.

After the establishment of the South African Constitutional Court in 1995, Kentridge agreed to serve it as an acting judge, contributing to many of its early landmark findings, including the non-constitutionality of the death penalty.

He continued to practice law at the highest level in London, where he became a QC (currently KC) in 1984. On his 90th birthday he argued – and won – a substantial tax case before the Supreme Court. He retired at the apex of his profession.

Sydney Kentridge was married to Felicia Kentridge for 53 years. She was an excellent advocate who practised at the Johannesburg Bar and – together with Chaskalson – set up the Legal Resources Centre. She died in 2015. They had four children, including the artist William Kentridge. Sydney holds honorary doctorates from the universities of Leicester, London and Sussex, Cape Town, KwaZulu-Natal and the Witwatersrand, as well as Seton Hall in the US.

This year an already widely acclaimed book, The Mandela Brief, by Thomas Grant, QC, has been published on the most prominent South African trials Sydney Kentridge was involved in. At the London launch, Kentridge himself attended, to be feted by many of the brightest and best of the British legal firmament. At the launch of the book at Stellenbosch University last month, former Deputy Chief Justice Dikgang Moseneke, Judge Johann Kriegler, Professor Thuli Madonsela, Grant and advocates Jeremy Gauntlett SC, QC, and Geoff Budlender, SC, gathered before a large audience to pay tribute to Kentridge.

Answering a question from the audience, it was Moseneke who made a clarion call for renewed legal activism in the face of State Capture, poor governance and its impact on the vulnerable – an apt instruction in celebration of Sydney Kentridge, a South African legal centurion who never flinched from taking on the state at its venal worst. DM/ ML/ MC


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  • Charles Whaley says:

    As a young actor in the 70’s I was living in Pretoria and working for PACT Playwork, a theatre-in-education company. One of our programs for high schools was banned by the Transvaal education department on the grounds that it was too provocative, so I was left on full pay with nothing to do. As it happened, the Biko inquest was taking place just up the road, so I decided to attend daily. It was amazing to watch Sydney Kentridge at work. He was forensic in his examination of the police witnesses, and while always courteous, at the same time he made his contempt for them and their actions quite clear. They were made to feel deeply uncomfortable and he managed to extract highly damaging information about the murder of Biko. It was a masterclass in the art of courtroom interrogation.

  • Errol Price says:

    This is unfortunately an excruciatingly banal article about a towering giant of the South African legal profession.
    Sydney Kentridge and other legal luminaries of his generation stood fast against the excesses of the Apartheid system while being careful not to undermine the foundations of the legal system nor to show contempt for members of the judiciary.
    Regrettably, the behaviour which they modelled has been cast aside by the current crop of legal renegades. Those who are prominent today are characterised by avarice and the fact that no abuse of process is too low or abhorrent for them to consider.
    At the same time a somnolent judiciary looks on with a helpless gaze as the walls of the legal system crumble around them.

    • Kanu Sukha says:

      While your observations are pertinent , why don’t you in response to the first observation of a ‘banal’ article, pen a non-banal one …. and submit it to the DM editorial for consideration to publish ? As a non-legalese reader, that would be far more useful … methinks.

  • Dennis Bailey says:

    Oh, that more arise to pick up this heavy mantle, and the courts return to some semblance of integrity without fear or favour. We can all dream.

  • Alan Paterson says:

    Thank you for this most respectful remembrance of the history and contributions of a truly great man. Sadly Sir Sydney must now only look on with horror at the machinations of some of the tawdry legal peacocks that currently strut across our stage. Individuals filled with bluster and bullying to maximise political sway and financial rewards that are directly opposed to their sheer incompetence. Venal is an entirely appropriate term, both past and present.

  • Abel Appel says:

    Sydney Kentridge we salute you! Your dedication to serving the oppressed and downtrodden is a legacy many others should take note of. Enjoy your centenary. God bless you!

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