Langa: A sober, kind and humble revolutionary

Former Chief Justice Pius Langa worked on trust. He took on the highest office of the Constitutional Court following its honeymoon phase, and created a judiciary that people trusted. He also wanted people to trust him. When a court clerk asked him to sing to prove his claim that he was a baritone, he smiled and asked: "Why? Don't you trust me?" He did not sing.

Langa's death on July 24 did not come as a shock to those who subsequently wrote sterling essays about his importance. He had been ill for a long time. Every superlative has been used to describe this man widely recognised as a giant of the legal world. They all said he was a quiet, hard worker, and spent his life extending justice to all.

Born in Bushbuckridge in the then Eastern Transvaal in 1939, Langa studied law by correspondence with the University of South Africa. He was admitted as an advocate of the Supreme Court of South Africa in 1977.   

In 1994, then President Nelson Mandela appointed him as one of the 11 founding members of the Constitutional Court and in 2005 he was promoted to chief justice.

Langa kept his humanity, dry sense of humour and loyalty to those who worked with him. Perhaps the people best placed to observe Langa the person, the man beyond being the crusader and upholder of the Constitution, were his clerks at the court. One of the young clerks he guided when he was deputy chief justice was Franny Rabkin, now a prominent legal journalist. Straight out of university, she tried to keep up with his ­tendency to work late into the night.

He often worked so hard that he would forget to eat. "The tray with his food would sit next to him and he would take a few bites," Rabkin said.

In the beginning she was intimidated by his stature. It also took six months to realise that "half of the time he was joking when he talked to us".

He always listened to his clerks, making them feel as though their opinion mattered. Langa liked it best when they disagreed and would argue their respective points, she said.

In one instance a judge shouted at Rabkin and Langa found her in tears. He asked her what had happened, and went to have a chat with the offending judge to smooth things over. "He always stood up for his staff," she said.

But the importance of his job was foremost in his mind. "He always kept in mind that the Constitution was a blueprint to transform our society and that guided his decisions."  

When the judges of the Constitutional Court took Cape Judge President John Hlophe to court, Langa remained calm. "There was so much pressure during the Hlophe thing and he kept his composure throughout it," Rabkin said.  

Nokukhanya Jele, who also clerked for Langa, is now the spokesperson for the National Association of Democratic Lawyers (Nadel), which Langa helped to found in the 1980s. She agreed that he cared deeply about those who worked for him. "On the rare occasion when you worked later than him he would ask you if you'd eaten and rested," she said.

He thrived on company, and would invite people to his small flat to watch cricket or listen to a new record (of the old-fashioned vinyl type). "My happiest memory of Uncle Pius was when he invited me to his flat when I was having a hard time. He just talked to me and made me laugh, and I walked out saying 'Yes I can do this'," Jele said.

Although he did not dance to his music, she said he liked classical music and jazz, and maintained that he had a great baritone voice. "I asked him to sing, but he smiled and asked me: 'Why? Don't you trust me?'"

For Langa, the Constitution was not a static tome but a document that needed regular revising to ensure it fitted changed circumstances, Jele said.

"We are lucky in South Africa because our lawyers are people like Pius Langa who want to change the world around them. They work to change the framework to include all people and ensure they all have rights," she said.

His guidance continued after she left the court and joined Nadel. "I would send out a Nadel press release and get an SMS from Uncle Pius saying you have a typo in line four." His involvement in civil society goes back to his hand in the foundation of Nadel. Krish Govender, a co-founder of the association in the 1980s, said Langa used his strong personality to bring lawyers together to fight the apartheid regime.

"The regime had built a new courthouse in Durban, which enforced segregation of everyone who entered the building," Govender said. "That was a catalyst for lawyers, who came together to fight it. They succeeded.

"He led without fear and he could always command an audience because people respected him," he said. With his feet firmly anchored in local activism, he took the message across South Africa that lawyers needed to unite to ensure justice was equal for all, he said. This led to the creation of Nadel, which he ran until 1994.  

"Pius was a revolutionary in the most sober, kind and humble mould," he said. "He was the embodiment of a nonviolent revolutionary, who united people from different backgrounds and, if unity was not possible, to agree to work alongside one another."

But he died too soon, Govender said. "He had so much more to offer and to do. People still needed his guidance." Langa's last public act of guidance came after he retired in 2009 and chaired the Press Freedom Commission – a body tasked with looking at the different ways in which the press could be regulated. This process began after the government called for a statutory body to regulate complaints about the press.

Nic Dawes, chairperson of the South African National Editors Forum, said: "He was very clear about the importance of freedom of speech in general and for the press in particular."

His stature ensured that the recommendations of the commission were taken seriously, Dawes said. These have been incorporated into the revamped Press Council, which now guides the fourth estate.




Pius Langa lived the values he espoused


Humility, integrity, wisdom and a wry sense of humour:  these are some of the characteristics that come to mind when one thinks of former Chief Justice Pius Langa.

Langa's first job was in a shirt factory, but through hard work and tenacity, he rose to the pinnacle of the legal profession, attaining the rank of senior counsel and ultimately being appointed as one of South Africa's first Constitutional Court judges. Using his calmly incisive views and intellectual rigour, he helped to lay the foundations of the court's rich jurisprudence.  

He always took the time to listen carefully to and consider others' views, even those of us who were his juniors. Working with him and participating in the work of the highest court in the country was an honour, especially for those of us who had the opportunity to interact directly with the chief justice.

He was able to instil a sense in each of us that we had something valuable to contribute. He knew that great lawyers could come from the most unlikely of places. He extended the same consideration to all of the court's staff, no matter their role.

Langa would seek to find areas of agreement because he never took the view that he alone had the right answer.

He was no stranger to adversity and shouldered serious personal challenges with stoicism. Langa did not seek refuge in complacency, but dedicated his life to public service, representing anti-apartheid activists, working to secure the release of political prisoners and serving as a founding member of the National Association of Democratic Lawyers, among other achievements.

In short, he lived the values he espoused. He changed the lives of the people around him; without fanfare, he quietly went about making the world a better place.

As a judge, Langa got to the core of each case and saw through any legal window-dressing.  He had a deep commitment to increasing access to justice and using the law to help the poor and vulnerable. Yet, at the same time, he was aware of the law's limits and the appropriate role of a court in a ­constitutional state.

Langa taught us about using law as an instrument of justice, the need for hard work and the value of humility and consensus-building. He inspired us by his life and his work to be like him, a courageous lawyer and a wonderful human being.

We are mindful of the fact that he has passed on the baton to our generation and that the best way to honour him is to continue the work of transforming this nation, a task to which he dedicated his life. – The Constitutional Court Clerks' Alumni Association

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Sipho Kings
Sipho Kings is the acting editor-in-chief of the Mail & Guardian

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