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Sir Sydney Kentridge: real-life hero at the bar



Legal legend Sir Sydney Kentridge has left an indelible mark on the judicial systems of South Africa and the United Kingdom (UK). At 98 years old, the retired lawyer devoted his life to the law, and strove to guarantee justice for all.

It was in this spirit that Kentridge received the Lifetime Achievement Award in honour of the late Helen Suzman at the Absa Jewish Achiever Awards this past Sunday. The award recognises Kentridge’s efforts in the legal sphere, and acknowledges his years of service in South Africa and the UK, where he resides today.

“This is a surprise,” said William Kentridge, Sir Sydney’s son, himself a former recipient of the Arts, Science, Sport and Culture award. “It’s fantastic that this is being given to my father.

“When you’re young, everyone’s father is a kind of hero,” he said. “As you grow older, one tempers one’s judgements and finds a place where they fit in the world. It’s always been odd to say that what I assumed was an exaggerated view of my father was in fact borne out by the experience of his life.”

Kentridge said that his father had influenced countless other lawyers, his career exemplifying what it is to be an honourable person.

“On behalf of the family and the Jewish community of South Africa, I’m happy you have the award and wish you congratulations,” he said to his father.

A video tribute outlined the years of service Kentridge had devoted to his calling. This included acting for Albert Luthuli, Nelson Mandela, and Desmond Tutu.

Kentridge reflected, “[The cases] brought me into contact for the first time with leaders of the African National Congress. It was really an education in South African politics for me.

“All the accused were simply acquitted. Of course, I and the other members of the defence team felt elated about it. It was the most political of trials in a highly politicised country, but it showed that the judiciary was still completely independent. It was a great day for the South African justice system.”

Kentridge rose to prominence overseas after leaving South Africa to practice law in England, where he became a well-respected barrister at the London Bar. He was later knight by Queen Elizabeth II for his services.

“I thought it was a great day when I went to Buckingham Palace and was knighted by the Queen with a tap on the shoulder with a sword,” Kentridge recalled. “I did regard it as some public recognition, and also had the idea that the work I had done in South Africa had a little to do with it.

“I remember telling one of my grandchildren that the Queen taps you on the shoulder with a sword, and the question I got from her was, ‘Isn’t that very dangerous?’”.

Kentridge expressed thanks for the Lifetime Achievement Award, calling it “very unexpected”.

“I certainly value it, coming as it does from Johannesburg, which was my old home town for many years before I came to England,” he said. “I had my Barmitzvah at the Yeoville Shul, and my late wife and I were married in the Wolmarans Shul. I have a very Johannesburg Jewish background which I greatly value.”

Kentridge said that his grandfather, who came to South Africa with his family about the time of the Boer War, was someone who he never knew personally but about whom he knew a lot.

“He got a position as the chazzan of the shul in Vryheid which then had a considerable Jewish community. That is what brought the family to South Africa.

“My family has always been what I wouldn’t call Orthodox, but a traditional Jewish family. My upbringing in Johannesburg was very much a Jewish one, and so I’m very touched that the SA Jewish Report saw fit to give an award which I greatly value.”

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