South Africans have over the past two months been learning to live with the prospect of losing a frail and elderly liberation hero, an architect of the transition to democracy. We did not expect it to be Pius Langa. The former chief justice had been ill, but was said to be recovering, and our attention was fixed elsewhere: on the Mediclinic Heart Hospital in Pretoria, on Qunu and on Mvezo.
Quite properly, the immediate reaction to news of Langa's death, including among those of us at the Mail & Guardian who had dealt with him as journalists, as litigants before his court and in the course of his work chairing the Press Freedom Commission, was to recall the extraordinary gentleness of his person and the rigour of his jurisprudence.
As detailed in this edition of the M&G, Langa's work as a lawyer and legal activist was a critical contribution toward the achievement of democracy, and his time on the Constitutional Court Bench helped to ensure that our freedom was anchored by the Bill of Rights.
Amid the praise for Langa, there was an awkward silence: President Jacob Zuma, in expressing his condolences, did not pause to apologise for the abuses heaped upon the Langa court in his name. ANC leader and Zuma supporter Gwede Mantashe, in an interview with this paper, described the judges of the Constitutional Court as "counter-revolutionaries" after they ruled against Zuma, his lawyer Michael Hulley and the French arms company Thint.
It was Langa who wrote the majority judgment upholding the legality of the search warrants the Scorpions used to raid Zuma's home, seizing documents related to the fraud and corruption investigations flowing from the arms deal.
Western Cape Judge President John Hlophe, whose alleged effort to suborn the Constitutional Court in favour of Zuma was met head-on by Langa himself, has yet to account fully to the Judicial Service Commission.
Mantashe is now secretary general of the ANC, Hulley sits at Zuma's hand as his official legal adviser, and the spy tapes that were the pretext for the dropping of charges, when the courts would not play along, remain under lock and key despite a court order to the contrary.
Mantashe's rhetoric has since become a staple of those in the governing party who feel the rule of law is an obstacle to their ambitions, rather than the enabler of deep transformation that Langa understood it to be. "Anti-majoritarian" is their word for constitutionalism.
A deeper tragedy is that this demagogy now finds an echo in the current chief justice. Mogoeng Mogoeng has, without naming him, attacked Langa's friend and colleague Johann Kriegler for raising concerns about the way the Judicial Service Commission applies transformation criteria in the appointment of judges. Mogoeng might as well be Blade Nzimande or Ngoako Ramatlhodi when he rubbishes "a movement that masquerades as agents for the enforcement of constitutional compliance when they are in fact a change-resistance force". Mogoeng appears unaware that he is not a politician, and may have to sit in judgment on a case brought by the Helen Suzman Foundation that deals with precisely this issue, something he will now surely be unable to do.
The lesson is clear: Pius Langa's legacy cannot be reduced to a historical exhibit in the museum of an achieved democracy. On the contrary, it is an instrument in the process of securing that achievement. It is also a rebuke to those who would settle for any less. We want to hear his gentle words right now, but we need the steel just as much.