Sydney Kentridge QC is at last retiring. Here is a Wikipedia summary of his remarkable legal career.

And here is my account of watching him in action in Bloemfontein back in 1988, when the case of the Sharpeville Six (six Africans sentenced to death for the ‘common purpose’ murder of a local township official) reached the top of the then apartheid legal tree. The case attracted global indignation. I as a youthful UK diplomat attended the Supreme Court hearing to watch the proceedings:

How, I wondered as a barrister manqué, would Mr Kentridge tackle this one? The eyes of the planet were on him. Every anti-apartheid activist on earth was willing him on to merciless rhetorical demolition of the apartheid regime.

He rose to speak. And in a few dramatic sentences he mastered the courtroom completely.

Not by attacking apartheid. Rather by describing in appalling heart-wrenching detail what had happened to Mr Dlamini as he was beaten and then burned alive by that Sharpeville crowd.

Then, having confronted the evil horror of the crime in itself, like a priest in an Orthodox church swinging the insense jar he began to sprinkle grains of doubt here and there, to and fro, until he made a powerful case that the sentences were unsupportable on the facts and law and, yes, accordingly unjust.

Just terrific technique – it gave the accused their best chance.

What he did that day was very subtle. He went out of his way to show respect for the court, treating the issue strictly on its legal merits. And, having established thereby a strong position in the courtroom, he painstakingly went through all the available best arguments one by one, rather than charging at the problem head-on. He seemed to be trying to create less of a clear-cut argument in favour of acquittal, but rather an indefinable but strong mood that to uphold the convictions would be unjust or wrong.

The Court listened, but speedily turned down the appeal, ingeniously though the case for the accused had been made. President PW Botha then pardoned them.

Would a more forceful/direct approach have been better? Who knows. There seemed to be no serious argument that the accused had not been part of the crowd who attacked Mr Dlamini and burned him to death. Rather the issue was how far if at all it was fair to link these particular members of the crowd to the murder, when who precisely had done what as part of the murder was never going to be clear. Insofar as any ‘common purpose’ doctrine ever made sense, the accused had not improperly been found guilty.

The wider point of rhetorical technique from that day?

Our old favourite: less is (often) more. Especially when a supremely gifted lawyer is on the case.