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Farewell to Denis Kuny, the people’s lawyer

Denis Kuny defended anti-apartheid activists across South Africa. Picture: Supplied

Denis Kuny defended anti-apartheid activists across South Africa. Picture: Supplied

Published Oct 26, 2021


One of the greatest legal giants in South African history, Denis Kuny, passed away on in his Johannesburg home on Monday.

During the dark decades of the apartheid state’s repression, Kuny was the people’s lawyer, defending political detainees across the country under the most difficult circumstances.

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The fact that most South Africans do not know the name Denis Kuny is a testament to the greatness of the man, especially if the first test of a great man is humility.

Kuny worked alongside George Bizos, Joel Joffe, Arthur Chaskalson, and Bram Fischer.

“Denis was one of the greatest defence lawyers in the apartheid era, quietly getting on with long, gruelling cases far from the limelight in hostile dorpies throughout the country. He was the epitome of the honest, indefatigable, hard-working, creative advocate whose joy came from being at the side of those who fought the hardest for our freedom,” former Constitutional Court Judge Albie Sachs told Independent Media.

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“If one looks at the sheer volume of political cases that Denis took on, he probably did more cases than any lawyer in our country,” Sachs said.

Judges and lawyers across the country have come out praising Kuny as an unsung hero, who was dedicated to defending his clients, the bulk of which were anti-apartheid activisits and freedom fighters during the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s.

Mohamed Navsa did his articles under Kuny, and was devastated at the news of his passing.

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“He was an incredibly important part of my life,” he said, “At the height of the Struggle, when others made money off of political trials, he did the work for free or for a modest fee, and he was one of the best.”

Geoff Budlender, the human rights advocate who co-founded the Legal Resources Centre, describes Denis Kuny as an incredibly effective advocate who was meticulous in his work and deeply committed to liberation.

“In the trial of Tokyo Sexwale and 11 others, there were two who we thought would never be acquitted but, thanks to the hard work of Denis, they were. He was never flamboyant in court but quietly effective.”

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Budlender remembers going into the backstreets of Maputo with Kuny to look for a witness, and similarly in the NUSAS trial, having to search high and low in Natal for a witness whom they eventually found walking on a beach.

“Denis would do things that most lawyers wouldn’t do. The one story that particularly stands out is relayed in Arthur Chaskalson’s biography – when Nelson Mandela needed to go to Natal and Denis was asked to accompany him.

“Denis felt his car was too old and had asked Chaskalson to borrow his car,” Budlender said. In 1961 Nelson Mandela acted as chauffeur and drove Kuny, who was in the back seat, to Ladysmith. Despite the risks to Kuny as a member of the Bar, he took on this task as requested by Joe Slovo.

The plethora of political trials in which Kuny was involved is staggering.

Early on, he became involved in the Rivonia trial in 1963, defending Jimmy Kantor, and was later the junior counsel in the Bram Fischer trial.

In 1966, he was involved in numerous PAC trials, and was a central figure on the defence team of the South West African treason trial.

In 1976, he defended Steve Biko who was charged with defeating the ends of justice, and managed to get Biko acquitted, just a few months before he was killed in police custody.

Kuny also defended Barbara Hogan in her 1982 treason trial, and Belgian national Helene Pastoors in her treason trial in 1986, among many others.

Kuny always wanted to be remembered as having been a decent man, yet his legacy has far exceeded that in South African history.

* Ebrahim is Independent Media Group Foreign Editor.