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Standing on the shoulders of lawyers like Denis Kuny

Denis Kuny with his three sons. From left to right: Neil, Steve, Denis and Jonathan Kuny. Picture: Supplied

Denis Kuny with his three sons. From left to right: Neil, Steve, Denis and Jonathan Kuny. Picture: Supplied

Published Oct 29, 2021


Those who are quiet by nature and refuse to grab the limelight so often end up underappreciated and recognised for the immense contribution they made to our liberation. Denis Kuny was one of those quiet but extremely effective Struggle lawyers, who for over three decades took on political cases few others would. In the wake of Kuny’s death this week at the age of 89, we have to ask ourselves why some advocates in our Struggle have been put on a pedestal while others, like Kuny, have remained in virtual obscurity despite having done more than probably anyone else.

Kuny was one of 120 members of the Johannesburg bar in 1961, but one of the very few prepared to take on political trials, often pro bono. Without progressive lawyers like Kuny, many more anti-apartheid activists and freedom fighters would have been convicted or given heavier sentences. Thanks to lawyers like Kuny there were acquittals and successes on appeal, and at a time when there was no legal aid, those who could not afford a defence lawyer, were represented by the best.

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Kuny took a stand against the apartheid state, and while he refused to join a political party, he did believe in the universality of human rights. His fight against injustice began in 1961 after the state of emergency was declared and hordes of activists were being detained, charged, tried and imprisoned. At the time his wife, Hillary, was the secretary of the Defence and Aid Fund, and had alerted him to many controversial legal cases which other lawyers were not interested in taking on. There were many PAC youths who had been involved in violence but had no one to defend them in court.

Kuny started by defending a host of black South Africans involved in small offences such as pass burning, demonstrations, breaching banning orders, membership of a banned organisation, and the like, but his cases quickly escalated to defending those accused of terrorism and high treason.

One of his first political cases was when he appeared as a junior counsel to Joe Slovo in a case from Soweto that went to the high court. He also became part of the defence team in the Rivonia Trial of 1963 along with Joel Joffe, Bram Fischer, Arthur Chaskalson, and George Bizos. The accused, the judge, the prosecutors, and members of the defence team have all died, and Kuny was the last from this historic trial to be laid to rest.

Retired Judge Kathy Satchwell worked with Kuny from 1979 and remembers what made him so effective as a lawyer in those times. He had a reputation within the legal fraternity for being a serious, meticulous and disciplined advocate with integrity. Even apartheid judges would listen to him as they found him honest and reliable, and when he defended a case he focused on legal arguments, not on the political.

“He was neither grand nor glorious, but would at times work through the night on the heads of argument, and was meticulous in his research. If someone had even a chance of being acquitted, Denis would appeal to the judge and talk to them in a way they felt respected. In the terrorism case of Alan Fine, Denis managed to get him acquitted, which showed how effective he was,” Satchwell recounted.

Kuny defended students in the Nusas trial in 1975, among them Eddie Webster who said, “He had an eye for detail and managed to sanitise our radical ideas in a way that made them sound reasonable and perfectly sensible.” Webster relayed that after Denis had led him through his defence and cross-examination, Webster’s father had said to him, “When you were arrested I supported you because you were my son, now I have heard you and your lawyers I defend you because what you did was right.”

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Kuny helped to legitimise the democratic ideals of dozens of those arrested for anti-apartheid activities, and portrayed them as patriotic South Africans, not dangerous terrorists or communists.

Kuny took on many high-profile cases, a selection of which include the Bram Fischer trial in 1964, the Swapo trial of 40, including Toivo ya Toivo in 1967, the mass treason trials in Lesotho in 1974, defence of Steve Biko in 1976, defence of Robben Island prisoners in 1978 who sought the right to have access to newspapers, the terrorism trial of Tokyo Sexwale and 11 others in 1978, Barbara Hogan’s treason trial in 1982, and the treason trial of Belgian national Helene Passtoors in 1986, among many others.

Revered human rights lawyers active today have tipped their hats to Kuny and his fellow advocates, saying they ‘stand on their shoulders.’ Howard Varney, who has been central to efforts to get cases of deaths in detention re-opened, paid tribute to Kuny this week, saying, “While he avoided the limelight, Denis was a tower of strength behind the scenes in the Aggett case and many others. He always engaged in meticulous and painstaking research in order to hold perpetrators to account. He is a true unsung hero.”

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* Ebrahim is Independent Media Group Foreign Editor.

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