Biko’s champion

Some people are bigger than their physical stature – and Sir Sydney Kentridge QC is one of them. At 78, he has a slight stoop, soon corrected to stand tall and elegant when the photographer comes to take his picture. Or indeed, as those who attended The Lawyer awards will know, on the dance floor where he cuts a fine figure. But the image of the Brick Court tenant, described as the outstanding advocate in the Commonwealth, will always be bigger than his physical size. This is the man, after all, who represented both Nelson Mandela and Steve Biko’s family.

The interview does not start well as, due to some mix-up, Kentridge is unprepared for my visit. But he takes it in his stride and ushers me into a room, reassuring me that he doesn’t mind at all. Kentridge is politely charming and off the record has a wry sense of humour.

Kentridge the advocate is known for his subtle delivery and understated approach and his interview style reflects this. I had expected moving anecdotes about his work in South Africa and a man who wears his passions on his sleeve. But then lovely as the Temple is, it ain’t Hollywood and Kentridge is not Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch.

I probably start off on an awkward note by asking him why he has not taken retirement yet. He has had the sort of career that would have meant that if he had retired at 50, he would have had plenty of glory in which to bask. But Kentridge still runs an active practice, albeit with a leaning towards shorter cases.

“I don’t retire because I still enjoy the bar and as long as people are misguided enough to want my help I will continue,” he says smiling, adding that he has not planned any retirement date. “I have never planned anything in my life, it just happened.”

For an unplanned career, it has gone quite well. He became a lawyer after being asked while in the South African forces to appear in two court martials. After being called to the South African bar in 1949, he found his practice edging towards company and commercial work.

“There was no specialisation at that time,” Kentridge says. “I did every kind of case, civil and criminal, but as time went on my practice developed in the direction of company and commercial law. But because of the situation in South Africa I was also drawn into political and civil work. That’s how my practice developed.”

On the criminal side he was briefed “once or twice” by a young black attorney called Nelson Mandela on small criminal matters and when Mandela faced his treason trial in 1958, Kentridge was part of the defence team.

“[Mandela] stood out. He was one of the younger leaders of the African National Congress and when he went into the witness box where I examined him it was quite obvious that he was a future leader,” recalls Kentridge.

Then in 1977 came the moment that many regard as his finest, when he represented the Biko family at the inquest into the death of the black consciousness leader. His court work, which quietly and logically tore apart the police’s claims that Biko had died from the effects of a hunger strike, was so notable that the proceedings were turned into a play The Biko Inquest in which Albert Finney played Kentridge.

Can he remember his feelings when the inquest finding was given as “accidental death”?

“Like many people I thought it was a travesty of justice,” Kentridge says in a detached manner. “I did not expect [that verdict] but I feared it. I think that the magistrate in giving that verdict of no one to blame thought that he was doing a service to his country, but it was a considerable disservice.”

The policemen who beat Biko appeared before the Truth and Reconciliation Commission last September to appeal for an amnesty, which was denied.

Kentridge says: “One of the conditions for amnesty is that the commission must be satisfied that you have told the truth and the whole truth. The amnesty commission was not satisfied that they had told the whole truth.”

So would Kentridge have wanted to see the policemen given amnesty if they had told everything?

“If it had been a full and frank confession I would have been happy,” he says after a pause. “The process is all about reconciliation, not revenge.”

Kentridge’s detachment is remarkable and professional, if slightly unnerving. Richard Gifford, a partner at Sheridans, who instructed him last year on a case involving the Chagos Islands inhabitants, agrees. The case was brought against the British government by the Ilois who were packed off to Mauritius and the Seychelles 30 years ago to make way for a US military base. Although the story pulled at the heart strings, Gifford remembers that Kentridge avoided the emotional stance in order to slay the opposition with logic.

“He can neutralise the other side,” says Gifford, laughing. “He out-volleys the incoming serve before the serve has even been served. But he never uses strong words because he never needs to. Sometimes I thought he might raise himself a little more to the occasion. But the strongest words he used was that the expulsion of the islanders was ‘a discreditable episode in colonial history’. And he said those more in sorrow than in anger.”

His friend, Lord Alexander of Weedon, admires Kentridge for his thoughtful approach to the law. “He has a clarity and economy of expression together with a dry sense of humour.”
A sign of his esteem, adds Lord Alexander, is that when he was chairman of the Bar Council looking to sue the Lord Chancellor over legal aid fee levels he turned to Kentridge, who did the work pro bono. “He is a believer in that great quote by Francis Bacon that ‘Every man is a debtor to his profession’,” says Lord Alexander.

Any attempt during the interview to try to persuade Kentridge to give his personal feelings about a case are politely sidestepped and he is quick to reinforce the impartiality message when asked about representing former Conservative deputy chairman Jeffrey Archer before the Conservative party last year.

“I had no problem about representing Archer. The politics of your client have nothing to do with it. It doesn’t mean that you approve or disapprove of his politics. Politics are just irrelevant.” Press reports stating that Archer had retained Kentridge for the criminal trial were not true, he says, as he is not a specialist in criminal law.

Kentridge and his wife decided to leave South Africa at the end of the 1970s. Lord Alexander attributes the move to a weariness over the constant battle before mostly unsympathetic judges to secure justice for black people.

But all Kentridge will say is that his wife has a theory that one should change career every 25 years.

“I couldn’t really do anything but advocacy,” he says. “So I thought I’d try it out in a different place. I continued to do some cases in South Africa until 1987. In fact my last two cases in South Africa were an appeal against the death penalty for the Sharpeville six and a case on behalf of a conscientious objector in which I got an injunction to stop the army carrying out a dirty tricks campaign against him.”

He returned to his home country in 1995 as an acting judge in the new constitutional court.

“It was extraordinary,” he says of the court which took judicial oaths in five languages. “Not only in South African terms but in international terms. There were two women [judges], one white, one black, three black men, there were five judges who had been judges under the previous regime… There was one judge who had been a freedom fighter who had lost an arm and an eye. It was fascinating.”

Asked whether he would ever consider moving back to South Africa, where his son’s family still lives, Kentridge smiles and says he never likes to look too far into the future.

Besides, there are many here who would fight to keep him in London. Ian Moyler, senior clerk at Brick Court, says Kentridge is one of the nicest people that the chambers has.
“His energy levels are unbounded and he has an ability to outrun many of the junior clerks in chambers,” says Moyler. As well as out-move those less than half his age on the dance floor.
Sir Sydney Kentridge QC
Brick Court Chambers