Pius Langa: From messenger to legal giant

PIUS LANGA (1939 – 2013)


Pius Langa represented the very best of the nonracial egalitarian values that lay at the heart of the politics promoted by Nelson Mandela, Walter Sisulu and other icons in the fight for democracy in this country, and which were reduced to text in the 1996 Constitution. For Langa, freedom, dignity and equality for all were central to the development of a new South African community.


The former chief justice’s career reveals a sustained and rigorous commitment to these beliefs. From humble beginnings as a court interpreter and messenger, he defied the many obstacles that the racist system placed in his way, and that of the majority of his fellow South Africans, to become an eminent member of the Bar, being admitted to the Durban Bar in 1977 and elevated to the ranks of senior counsel in 1994.

Throughout his career as a practitioner, he fought for the freedom of those who were oppressed while simultaneously working to transform the legal system; hence his leading role in the early 1980s in the formation of the National Association of Democratic Lawyers where all lawyers committed to similar ideals of a nonracial and nonsexist country under the rule of law could meet to work towards these noble ends.

It was obvious that the newly formed Constitutional Court needed jurists of his stature and so it was that Langa was appointed to the first Constitutional Court. As a judge of the court he penned a number of key judgments, far too many to describe in one obituary. Equally illustrative is his judgment in Zeeland vs The Minister of Justice and Constitutional Development, in which he wrote a bold assertion of the importance of the right to freedom and security of the person, the deprivation of which a court would only sanction after the strictest of scrutiny.

In MEC for Education KwaZulu Natal vs Pillay, Langa developed the concept of reasonable accommodation, to ensure that our law achieved an adequate balance between the rights of a person who wishes, for example, to wear a nose stud for religious reasons and the hardship that permitting her to so do would cause to the customs of the school which she attended. Writ large, this judgment recognised the need in our society to promote and respect diversity.

In a minority judgment in Masiya vs DPP, Langa showed the coherence of his stance on the transformation of the legal system when, while agreeing with the majority of the court that the definition of rape should include anal penetration of women, he held that the majority should have extended the common-law definition of rape to include the anal rape of men. In developing his reasons for this conclusion, Langa set out guidelines for the development of the common law in the shadow of the Constitution: this is a true template for courts that must rise to the challenge of the transformation of our legal system.

In extracurial writings Langa argued strongly in favour of the role of courts in safeguarding the citizenry from “the power play within government itself”. In particular, he was firm that the Constitutional Court was to be the central institution to ensure that accountability to the Constitution be a requirement in the governance of this country.

In another piece, which formed the basis of his Bram Fischer Memorial Lecture, Langa spoke out in favour of judicial diversity and, in particular, the likelihood that this principle would enhance the quality of decisions made. He warned against the “dangers of judicial conformity” and spoke of the need “to give space to dissent both in society at large and in the judiciary”.

Langa remained steadfastly loyal to the values that guided him from the earliest days of his career. That loyalty served to ensure that he became one of the giants of the South African legal community and a true architect of the transformation of the legal system towards one that is congruent with the principles of the Constitution.

Coupled with this jurisprudential vision, Langa’s innate wisdom, humility, courtesy and ability to listen to the other side made him a great judge. Of course he had other interests, including a great love of tennis; as a man of true judgment, he had considerable enthusiasm for the career of Roger Federer.

His passing represents a massive loss for the country. His continued contribution to the legal community in particular would have been invaluable, but his legacy will surely serve to guide those who follow. –

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