Parliamentarians bade farewell to former chief justice Pius Langa on Wednesday, simultaneously welcoming his successor, Sandile Ngcobo.
Langa, who turned 70 in March this year, handed over the reins of the Constitutional Court to Chief Justice Ngcobo last month.
In a special joint sitting of the National Assembly and the National Council of Provinces, President Jacob Zuma and MPs heaped praise on Langa, who shared a bench with the president in the
Zuma said Langa’s time at the helm of the Constitutional Court would stand out for years to come.
”This occasion is testimony … to the high regard in which retiring chief justice Pius Langa is held … In all his time in the Constitutional Court he has served our country and its people in a remarkable and outstanding manner, with dedication and commitment.
”We are [also] paying tribute to the role justice Langa played in the struggle for democracy in our country. For many years he has been a champion and defender of people’s rights.
”We especially remember his role as one of the progressive lawyers who fought for justice in the face of apartheid’s laws … He was also deeply involved in negotiating the end of apartheid,” Zuma said.
Leader of the opposition Athol Trollip said Langa’s progression through the ranks of the legal profession had been inspiring.
”All the citizens of this country now know that one can overcome the most daunting obstacles, endure unimaginable personal suffering and sacrifice, and yet progress from being a court messenger … to the highest judicial office in the land,” he said to applause.
Langa had not only acquired an inimitable local reputation, but an international one too, having served many foreign nations with distinction.
”Judge Langa is a jurist of unimpeachable integrity and wisdom. Even in times of political tension, judicial turmoil and controversy, he retained his inherent and coherent dignity, and was cool under fire,” Trollip said.
Addressing the House, Langa reminded members — who gave him a standing ovation — that there remained much to be done in South Africa.
”As I leave centre stage as chief justice of South Africa … I am acutely aware that the work I’ve tried to do … is far from done. There is a long way to go still.
”As long as poverty, homelessness, disease and illiteracy ravage our people — and are still a feature of the lives of many, existing side by side with those who are privileged and have everything before them — our job, yours and mine, will not have been accomplished,” he said.
Langa had a message for his successor.
”It is still very much a time of transition, requiring the gifts of wisdom, diligence and diplomacy,” he told him.
Speaking after Langa, Ngcobo spelled out his vision, and listed some of the challenges facing the judiciary.
”The justice system should be accessible to all. Judicial integrity is crucial to the delivery of justice. There must be a healthy constitutional dialogue among the branches of government consistent with the principle of the separation of powers.
”There must be transformation of the judiciary, and the legal system, consistent with the demands of our Constitution. I expect to devote all my energy and every moment of my tenure to give effect to this vision,” Ngcobo said.
Langa, born in Bushbuckridge in 1939, first started work in a shirt factory before moving on to serve in various positions in the then department of justice. It was in 1977, after obtaining B Juris and LLB degrees from the University of South Africa (Unisa), that his legal career took off.
In that year, he was admitted as an advocate of the Supreme Court of South Africa, practised at the Natal Bar, and, in early 1994, attained the rank of Senior Counsel.
With the advent of democracy in South Africa and the establishment of a Constitutional Court, Langa was appointed, with ten others, to serve in the new court.
He became its deputy president in 1997, and assumed the position of deputy chief justice four years later.
Langa was appointed as chief justice and head of the Constitutional Court in June 2005, a position he held until his retirement last month.
Among the qualifications he has been awarded over the course of his distinguished career are Doctor of Laws degrees, honoris causa, by the universities of Zululand, Western Cape, Cape Town, Unisa, Rhodes, Yale in the United States and the National University of Ireland.
Langa has also been awarded the degree Doctor of the Public Service, honoris causa, by North Eastern University, Boston, Massachusetts.
His successor, Ngcobo, is impressively qualified.
The 56-year-old holds a B Proc from the University of Zululand, awarded with distinctions in constitutional law, mercantile law and accounting.
He has an LLB from the University of Natal, and an LLM from Harvard Law School in the United States. – Sapa