Sydney Kentridge

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Sydney Woolf Kentridge

Born (1922-11-05) 5 November 1922 (age 97)
Alma materUniversity of Witwatersrand (graduated 1942)
Exeter College, Oxford (graduated 1948)
OccupationBarrister, anti-apartheid activist and judge
Years active1949–2013
Known forApartheid-era political trials
Spouse(s)Felicia Kentridge (née Geffen, m. 1952–2015, her death)

Sir Sydney Kentridge KCMG, QC (born 5 November 1922) is a South African-born former lawyer, judge and member of the English Bar. He practised law in South Africa and the United Kingdom from the 1940s until his retirement in 2013, and played a leading role in a number of the most significant political trials in apartheid-era South Africa, including the Treason Trial of Nelson Mandela and the 1978 inquest into the death of Stephen Biko. Kentridge's wife, Felicia Kentridge, was also a leading anti-apartheid lawyer.

Early life and education[edit]

Kentridge was born in 1922 in Johannesburg, the son of Lithuanian-born Jewish lawyer and politician Morris Kentridge (1881–1964).[1] Sydney Kentridge attended Johannesburg's King Edward VII School, before studying at the University of Witwatersrand. He graduated in 1942, and served during the Second World War as an intelligence officer in the South African Army in East Africa and Italy.[2] After the war, he attended Exeter College, Oxford, on an ex-serviceman's grant, and graduated with a first-class BA in Jurisprudence in 1948.[2]

Legal career[edit]

In 1949, after working briefly as a judge's clerk, Kentridge was admitted as an advocate of the Supreme Court of South Africa. He was appointed a senior counsel in 1965. He became a leading defence lawyer in political trials in South Africa, with some of his major cases including the Treason Trial (1958–61), which saw him defend Nelson Mandela, and the Prisons Trial (1968–69). A staunch opponent of apartheid, Kentridge represented three Nobel Peace Prize winners during his career – Mandela, Desmond Tutu and Albert Luthuli.[3]

In 1978, he represented the family of the anti-apartheid activist Stephen Biko at the inquest following Biko’s death in police custody on 12 September 1977.[4] "There is indisputable evidence," Kentridge said during the inquest, "that...Mr. Biko went into the interrogation room alive and well...[but] he came out a physical and mental wreck. He died a miserable and lonely death on a cold prison floor." Lord Alexander of Weedon wrote of his performance: "Through remorseless and deadly cross-examination, sometimes with brilliant irony, Kentridge established that the founder of the Black Consciousness Movement had been killed by police brutality. The verdict of accidental death was seen as risible." In a 1984 British television dramatisation of the Biko inquest, Kentridge was portrayed by Albert Finney.[5]

Kentridge practised at the English Bar between 1977 and 2013,[6] and was appointed Queen’s Counsel in 1984. He became a Bencher of Lincoln's Inn in 1985. He was a longtime member of Brick Court Chambers, a leading London commercial set, and was widely regarded as the "elder statesman" of the English Bar before his retirement in 2013.[7] Among his most notable cases in the UK was his successful defence of P&O Ferries against a charge of manslaughter in the wake of the 1987 Zeebrugge ferry disaster.[8] Kentridge furthermore served as a judge in a number of jurisdictions, sitting as a Judge of Appeal in Botswana (1981–89), as a Judge of the Courts of Appeal of Jersey and Guernsey (1988–92) and as an Acting Justice of the South African Constitutional Court (1995–96).


Kentridge is a Knight Commander of the British Order of St Michael and St George (1999) and a Supreme Counsellor of the South African Order of the Baobab in Gold (2008).[2][9] He has been awarded an Honorary LL.D. by the Universities of Leicester (1985), Cape Town (1987), Natal (1989), London (1995), Sussex (1997), Witwatersrand (2000) and Buckingham (2009). He was elected an Honorary Fellow of Exeter College, Oxford – his alma mater – in 1986.[10] He is also a Fellow of the Institute of Advanced Legal Studies (1997), an Honorary Fellow of the American College of Trial Lawyers (1998) and an Honorary Member of the New York City Bar Association (2001). In March 2013, Kentridge was interviewed on the British radio show Desert Island Discs.[11] In May 2013, he received a lifetime achievement award at the inaugural Halsbury Legal Awards.[12] The South African General Bar Council awards an annual prize in Kentridge's name, the Sydney and Felicia Kentridge Award, for excellence in public interest law.[13]

Personal life[edit]

In 1952, Kentridge married Felicia Geffen (1930–2015),[14] a lawyer and anti-apartheid activist who co-founded the South African Legal Resources Centre (LRC);[15] Kentridge himself was a founding trustee of the LRC.[4] He has lived in Maida Vale, London, since the 1990s, and has four children, nine grandchildren and one great-grandchild.[16] Kentridge's eldest son is the South African artist and filmmaker William Kentridge.[3] Sydney Kentridge is a keen fan of cricket and opera,[3] and is a cousin of the South African American musician and composer Trevor Rabin.[17]


  1. ^ "Kentridge, Morris". Jewish Virtual Library. Retrieved 23 July 2012.
  2. ^ a b c "Sir Sydney Kentridge". Presidency of the Republic of South Africa. Archived from the original on 15 February 2016. Retrieved 2 February 2015.
  3. ^ a b c Gapper, John (18 January 2013). "Lunch with the FT: Sydney Kentridge". Financial Times. Retrieved 7 April 2013.
  4. ^ a b "Sir Sydney Kentridge". South African History Online. Retrieved 29 January 2015.
  5. ^ "The Biko Inquest (1984)". British Film Institute. Retrieved 4 March 2015.
  6. ^ "Sir Sydney Kentridge QC Retires". 26 March 2013. Retrieved 8 May 2013.
  7. ^ "Law". The Times of London. 21 April 2008. Retrieved 5 November 2012.
  8. ^ "Mandela's QC goes into battle for the hunters". The Guardian. 4 October 2004. Retrieved 2 February 2015.
  9. ^ "Invitation to the 12th Annual Steve Biko Memorial Lecture" (PDF). University of Cape Town. 2011. Retrieved 25 January 2013.
  10. ^ "List of Honorary Fellows". Exeter College, Oxford. 2015. Archived from the original on 18 June 2014. Retrieved 3 January 2016.
  11. ^ "Sir Sydney Kentridge QC on Desert Island Discs". Brick Court Chambers. 2 April 2013. Retrieved 5 April 2013.
  12. ^ "Sir Sydney Kentridge QC honoured with Lifetime Contribution Award at the Halsbury Legal Awards". Brick Court Chambers. 9 May 2013. Retrieved 29 January 2015.
  13. ^ "Pay the debt forward: Public Protector asks her peers". Public Protector South Africa. 21 July 2015. Archived from the original on 8 December 2015. Retrieved 13 August 2015.
  14. ^ "Rights campaigner Felicia Kentridge dies". 9 June 2015. Retrieved 17 June 2015.
  15. ^ "The Legal Assistance Trust Newsletter" (PDF). 2004. Retrieved 20 December 2012.[permanent dead link]
  16. ^ "STATEMENT FROM THE LRC ON LEARNING OF THE DEATH OF LADY FELICIA KENTRIDGE". Legal Resources Centre. 8 June 2015. Archived from the original on 21 July 2015. Retrieved 17 July 2015.
  17. ^ "Obama teams with 'Titans'". Los Angeles Times. 8 November 2008. Retrieved 4 February 2015.

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