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 made an Honorary Fellow of the College. In 1949, Kentridge was admitted to the Johannesburg Bar.
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 together with Issie Maisels and Bram Fischer became leading lawyers for the defence in political trials in South Africa such as the Treason Trial (1958 – 1961) and the newspaper Prisons Trial (1968 – 1969).
He was appointed Senior Counsel in 1965 and appointed chairperson of the Johannesburg Bar Council from 1972 to 1973. Five years later, in 1977, he was called to the English Bar. In 1978, he took on the inquest into the brutal killing in police detention of Steve Biko where he was instrumental in exposing the circumstances of Biko’s death. That same year he became one of the founding trustees of the Legal Resources Centre (LRC) established in 1978 as a result largely of the creative initiative of his wife, Felicia, an advocate, herself. Kentridge made time to attend meetings of the Trust and Centre, and to offer encouragement to those who worked there. He was always willing to meet LRC lawyers to discuss their problems.
Kentridge refused to accept an appointment to the bench under the Apartheid government. He served as a judge of the Appeal Court in Botswana. In his 50s, Kentridge went to London where he launched a successful legal career, albeit one much more associated with the establishment than that of his time in South Africa. In 1984, he was appointed Queen’s Counsel and served as an Appeal Judge in Jersey and Guernsey. He was elected as Bencher of Lincoln’s Inn in 1986. In England, 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).
When apartheid collapsed, he took time away from his lucrative practice in London to sit as an acting judge of the Constitutional Court. He delivered the first reported judgment the court gave. He became a member of the powerful Brick Court chambers, a QC, and was knighted in 1999 by the United Kingdom as Knight Commander of the Order of St. Michael and St. George for his international human rights work over the years.
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 stands out for his considerable contribution as a renowned jurist to the eradication of an abhorrent system that set humanity apart based on race. He rose above the confines of apartheid dogma to embrace a vision of a non-racial, non-sexist, free and democratic society.
The South African General Council of the Bar, recognising their contribution to law and justice in South Africa, annually awards the Sydney and Felicia Kentridge Award for service to the law in Southern Africa.
In 2008, the South African Government conferred the Order of the Baobab in Gold to Sir Sydney Kentridge 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.
Kentridge married Felicia Geffer, in 1952. They have two daughters, two sons, two granddaughters and two grandsons.