Superlatives are common in tributes to Sydney Kentridge. He certainly was one of the finest lawyers of his generation. Much has been written about his involvement in some of the most important cases in the legal struggle against the apartheid regime. His courtroom skills and his commitment to justice and the rule of law were an inspiration to generations of lawyers and all of us at the LRC were in awe of him.
Sydney represented the best face of the profession. The understated elegance of his delivery of argument was emphatic in its impact and usually in its outcome. In an age when there are too many self-proclaimed, rather than universally acclaimed geniuses, Sydney’s imposing courtroom presence is sorely missed. He did not require theatrics, nor did he resort to tantrum throwing or breast-beating. His forensic skills were enough. His use of language and law were a joy to behold.
Morris Zimmerman, one of the first lawyers to offer his services to the LRC and a mentor to generations of LRC lawyers repeatedly told the story of how his firm had despatched numbers of briefs to counsel, asking whether the revocation of a passport by the responsible Minister could be challenged in a court of law. To present day lawyers the answer seems obvious. Not so in 1949. Sydney was the only counsel who answered in the affirmative. The case that proved him right was Sachs v Donges NO 1950 (2) SA 365 (A), where he and D B Molteno were led by Snitcher KC.
Sydney was courageous and resolute in taking the legal fight to the apartheid regime in some of the most high-profile cases of his time. That courage and his example inspired lawyers at the LRC. He served as a model, to show that even under the most egregious conditions challenge was possible, necessary, and indeed a moral duty. And that it could be accomplished with expertise and finesse.
At a time when legal giants abounded, Sydney was a giant amongst giants and was universally admired.
Sydney’s agreement to serve as a founding trustee of the LRC provided impetus to its establishment and helped greatly in establishing the credibility of the LRC in the legal world. Together with other notables, he provided protection against the dark powers of the security apparatus of the apartheid government.
The synergy between Arthur Chaskalson and Sydney was vital in the legal struggle against apartheid and in the establishment and continued existence of the LRC. Sydney’s stature allowed his beloved Felicia, who was instrumental in the formation of the LRC, to employ her considerable skills to persuade charitable foundations and others to make donations to the LRC to enable it to launch legal challenges. His presence, and the efforts of Arthur, Felicia, and others, were vital in obtaining support for the LRC from the Bar and the attorneys’ profession.
Sydney and Felicia were friends of the LRC in every sense. They hosted many fundraising dinners at their home in Houghton. Every year we would have our end of year functions in their garden. Sydney was a generous and charming host. He was readily available when we needed advice and when his schedule allowed, a presence in court. When we gathered at his home his devotion to Felicia and his family was obvious and heart-warming. As was his dedication to the mission of the LRC.
When the Constitutional era beckoned, Sydney at an LRC occasion delivered a speech in which he was adamant that the LRC would continue to be a necessary instrument to ensure social justice in a new South Africa. He was clearly passionate in making that call. And he was right.
Sydney has just passed a hundred years of life, through which he was witness to social upheaval, the effects of injustice imposed by social engineering and of incredible change.
Through all of that he maintained a steadfastness to being the best lawyer he could be and to being our friend and supporter.
We salute you, Sydney! You will always be one of the best parts of our institutional memory.