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Felicia Kentridge: a most remarkable woman

  • Robyn
Deemed a “remarkable force of nature” by friends and colleagues alike, lawyer, teacher, academic, political activist, wife and mother, Lady Felicia Kentridge (née Geffen), who established the Legal Resources Centre in 1979, passed away in London last Sunday after a debilitating illness. She was 85.
by ROBYN SASSEN | Jun 10, 2015

Pictured: Lady Felicia Kentridge.

PHOTOGRAPH COURTESY WWW.TIMESLIVE.CO.ZA

 Born in 1930 in Johannesburg to Irene and Max Geffen, immigrants to South Africa of Lithuanian Jewish heritage, who both became lawyers - Irene was South Africa’s first woman advocate - Felicia was educated in law during the 1940s at the University of Cape Town and the University of the Witwatersrand.

While completing her LLB degree, she attended a tennis party where she met Sydney Kentridge QC; they married in 1952. In the 1960s Sydney became famous as counsel for the defence in the Rivonia Treason Trial and other high profile political hearings.

Directly after graduating, Felicia joined the Legal Aid Bureau as a leave substitute for a colleague who was on maternity leave. It was in those four short months that the seeds for her politically articulate career were arguably sown.

In an interview on the archives of the Legal Resources Centre, Kentridge recalls being told: “You must never lose your outrage” - advice which she clearly never forgot. More than 20 years later, she persuaded the Wits Law Faculty to set up a legal clinic, which she ran in collaboration with the likes of Arthur Chaskalson, Geoff Budlender and others.

It was designed to offer free legal services to thousands of disenfranchised poor black South Africans, during and after apartheid.

Humble to a fault, Kentridge often referred to herself as a “lapsed lawyer”, and described her professional impetus in running the centre and being proactively anti-apartheid, as the rule of law.

The Kentridges relocated from their home in Houghton to London in 1981. In 1999, Sydney was made a Knight Commander of the British Order of St Michael and St George, which rendered Felicia a titled Lady.

The late South African Nobel laureate for literature, Nadine Gordimer, a cousin of the Kentridges, once commented that when Felicia walked into a room, the impact she made took your breath away. She referred to the Kentridge couple - Felicia and Sydney - as brilliant, magnetic people with a refined sense of value.

Kentridge leaves her husband, Sydney, four children: Catherine, William - arguably South Africa’s most highly acclaimed living artist - Matthew and Eliza, grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

 

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