Thomas Grant

Brilliant career of barrister who helped to dismantle apartheid

Sir Sydney Kentridge, 100, retired 10 years ago but lawyers around the world remain in awe of his work in the courtroom

January 19, 2023 09:54

Last November, Sir Sydney Kentridge KC KCMG turned 100. This milestone birthday was celebrated not only by his family but also by lawyers around the world who venerate Kentridge as perhaps the greatest advocate of the 20th century and a man of principle and courage. Jonathan Sumption, a friend and former colleague, once described him as “the barrister’s barrister…[with] a moral stature that no amount of forensic technique can impersonate”.

Philippe Sands KC paid tribute to a “wondrous and principled advocate”.
Kentridge was called to the Johannesburg Bar in 1949 and practised there until the 1980s when he shifted his practice to London, where he still lives.

His family background is as fascinating as his career. In 1881, Kentridge’s grandfather, Sachna Zaiv Kantrovich, left Utena in North-East Lithuania. Pogroms and tsarist conscription drove him to take his wife and infant son, Morris, to settle in Sunderland, where he supported them as a cantor. Some 20 years later, Sachna and his family moved again: this time to Natal. In 1912 he anglicised the family name to Kentridge. It was under that surname that Morris developed a practice as an attorney and became a national political figure, serving as a member of parliament in South Africa for more than 30 years. Sydney’s arrival into the world was not without incident: in the early 1920s Morris was a firebrand lawyer, experiencing imprisonment without trial for his work for striking miners.

On one occasion in 1922 the car Morris and his pregnant wife May — Sydney’s mother to-be — were travelling in was shot at; fortunately, May emerged unscathed. The young Sydney studied at Witwatersrand University at a time when the cloud of fascism was being experienced across the world and after graduating he joined the South African Air Force in 1942.

The next four years of his life were spent in uniform, first in Africa and then Italy. Kentridge was part of the invasion force that landed in Sicily in July 1943 and he still remembers being strafed by Stuka bombers — as well as the joy of VE Day, spent outside Mantua. He studied for a second degree at Exeter College, Oxford immediately after the war (once visiting Clement Attlee at 10 Downing Street with his father) and returned to South Africa to start a career as an advocate.

Kentridge’s early years at the Bar included many capital cases; he still recalls gloomily the sentence of death being pronounced on clients he had defended. His breakthrough came with the gargantuan “Treason Trial”, which ran for several years in the Old Synagogue in Pretoria, converted in the early 1950s into a courtroom and the location of many of Kentridge’s most famous later cases. The Treason Trial involved the prosecution of dozens of the leading members of the ANC, accused in effect of a conspiracy to overthrow the government by violence.

During the trial that Kentridge got to know one of his clients, Nelson Mandela, for whom he secured, alongside all the other defendants, an historic acquittal in 1961. Years later, after he had become president, Mandela would pay tribute to his advocacy, recalling his “the brilliance and courage of Sydney Kentridge... His manner was always understated, controlled and relentlessly rational. His cross-examination was devastating.”

Kentridge would go on to become the leading anti-apartheid advocate. His clients included seven newspaper editors, two university professors, a QC (who also happened to be the de facto leader of the banned South African communist party), and the Anglican Dean of Johannesburg, as well as Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Winnie Mandela and Chief Albert Luthuli, the president of the ANC. The case that propelled Kentridge into the international public eye was his representation of the family of the black activist Steve Biko at the inquest into his death in a police cell in 1977.

Over the course of many days, Kentridge cross-examined to devastating effect the police officers and doctors who had perpetrated or colluded in Biko’s death. His description of Biko’s last hours were reported around the world: “There is indisputable proof that Mr Biko went into the interrogation room alive and well but he came out a physical and mental wreck…he then died a miserable and lonely death on a mat on a stone floor in a prison cell.”

The perfunctory verdict by the magistrate that no evidence of criminality had been demonstrated devastated Kentridge, leading him to question whether there was any point in practising in courts that provided neither accountability nor justice. The inquest would later be the subject of a play staged initially at the Riverside Studios in London, with Albert Finney playing Kentridge. In a contemporary article Bernard Levin recorded that when he accompanied Kentridge to the first night, his friend instinctively stood up from the audience when the actor playing the magistrate commenced the drama with the words “Yes, Mr Kentridge…”

Many have committed to paper their memories of the man in action. Here is the account of Jeremy Gauntlett SC KC, whom Kentridge led in a number of cases: “He has the natural gift of a deep baritone voice, and the acquired ones of a deliberate fluency and perfect timing in delivery.

“He was unrelenting. In court he spoke in carefully constructed sentences, often whole paragraphs. His manner was cool and ironic, cold and with a slashing sarcasm when angry. He was very well-read, and his humour was dry.”

In the late 1970s, Kentridge joined chambers at Brick Court in London. Over the next decade, while he continued to practise in South Africa, he became the leading commercial and constitutional barrister in England — an extraordinary achievement in itself given that he had only started practising here in middle age — appearing in cases such as the prosecution of P&O over the Herald of Free Enterprise tragedy, the Countryside Alliance’s challenge to the Fox Hunting Act, and the fight by the Chagos Islanders to return to their home nation.

In the mid-1990s, Kentridge was asked to return to South Africa in the newly formed Constitutional Court.

Its first decision perhaps remains its most momentous: holding that the death penalty (a sentence meted out by South African courts at the time with alarming frequency) was contrary to the post-apartheid constitution. More than 300 people on death row were reprieved. When writing his judgment, Kentridge recalled those early capital cases — or his representation in 1988 of the Sharpeville Six, another case which received world attention. He had visited his condemned clients in Pretoria (they had been convicted under a dubious interpretation of the “common purpose” doctrine of the murder of the deputy mayor of the township of Sharpeville).

The consultation was interrupted when the sheriff arrived, as was the practice, to tell another prisoner that his execution was set for the next day, which always triggered wailing from the others condemned. Kentridge recalled: “If anyone had any feeling that the death penalty should be reinstated they should go and spend an hour on death row.”
Kentridge retired at the age of 90, precisely 64 years to the day after he had first been called to the Johannesburg Bar.

His 90th birthday was spent appearing in the UK Supreme Court — where opposing counsel David Pannick took the unprecedented step of publicly wishing Kentridge a happy birthday. Ten years earlier, Kentridge had been knighted for services to international law, a rare accolade for a lawyer. A perhaps even rarer accolade was his invitation to appear on Desert Island Discs in 2013. One of his discs — Lord Beginner’s Cricket Lovely Cricket — was a nod to one of his great loves: he can still recall match statistics from the 1930s.

Kentridge remains very active: he is a regular opera-goer and receives tides of visitors. His wife Felicia, herself a remarkable person who devoted much of her life to the anti-apartheid struggle, died in 2015.

Last year was something of an annus mirabilis for the Kentridge family. Not only did Sydney celebrate his centenary, but his eldest son, the internationally renowned artist and film-maker William, had a one-man exhibition at the Royal Academy.

Thomas Grant KC is the author of The Mandela Brief: Sydney Kentridge and the Trials of Apartheid (John Murray, 2022)

January 19, 2023 09:54

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