Back to top

Sir Sydney Kentridge (1922 - )

The Order of the Baobab in

Sir Sydney Kentridge (1922 - ) Awarded for:
His exceptional contribution to the fight against unjust apartheid laws and embracing the vision of a non-racial, non-sexist, free and democratic society.

Profile of Sir Sydney Kentridge

Sir Sydney Kentridge was born in Johannesburg in 1922. He matriculated in 1938 at the King Edward VII High School. In 1941, he obtained a BA degree at the University of the Witwatersrand. He served with the South African forces in World War II for four years and went on to attend Exeter College in Oxford on an ex-serviceman’s grant, receiving first-class honours in jurisprudence. He was also made an Honorary Fellow of the college. In 1949, Kentridge was admitted to the Johannesburg Bar and in 1965, he was appointed Senior Counsel.

He was appointed chairperson of the Johannesburg Bar Council in 1972. Five years later, in 1977, he was called to the English Bar and in 1984 he was appointed Queen’s Counsel. He has been a Judge of Appeal in Botswana, and also in Jersey and Guernsey. Before moving to England, Kentridge practised for more than 30 years at the South African Bar, during which time his clients included Nelson Mandela and the late Chief Albert Luthuli.

He became the leading lawyer for the defence in political trials in South Africa, with some of his major cases including the Treason Trial (1958 – 1961) and the newspaper Prisons Trial (1968 – 1969). In 1978, he took on the inquest into the brutal killing in police detention of Steve Biko, in which role he was able to expose the circumstances of Biko’s death.

Kentridge is a highly regarded man of justice who fought the causes of many political activists who opposed the unjust laws of the past South African regime. He has become a very senior and internationally respected jurist and was honoured by the United Kingdom as Knight Commander of the Order of St. Michael and St. George for services to international law. He was elected as Bencher of Lincoln’s Inn in 1986. In England, Sir Sydney Kentridge has represented the English Bar in Court and has acted for the British Government (in the litigation on the Maastricht Treaty) and against it (in litigation citing the Home Secretary for contempt of Court).

He has been a visiting scholar at Harvard Law School, and has received honorary law degrees from the universities of Leicester, London, and Sussex in England; from Cape Town and KwaZulu-Natal and from Seton Hall in the United States. In 1995 and 1996, Sir Sydney sat on the new South African Constitutional Court. He was a faculty member of Salzburg Seminar Session 184; American Law and Legal Institutions, 1978; and Session 349, Recent Developments in American Law and Legal Institutions, 1997. Sir Sydney Kentridge stands out for his considerable contribution as a renowned jurist to the eradication of an abhorrent system that set humanity apart on the basis of race. He rose above the confines of apartheid dogma to embrace a vision of a non-racial, non-sexist, free, just and democratic society defined by peace, unity and human solidarity. He married Felicia Geffer in 1952. They have two daughters, two sons, two granddaughters and two grandsons.