Legal profession pays tribute to Justice Langa

September 1st, 2013

By Nomfundo Manyathi-Jele

The legal profession is mourning the loss of former Chief Justice Pius Langa (74) who died on 24 July 2013. A memorial service was held for Justice Langa on 1 August at the Durban City Hall and he was buried on 3 August after a service at the same hall.

The former Chief Justice was born in Bushbuckridge on 25 March 1939. He was admitted as an advocate of the Supreme Court of South Africa in 1977 after obtaining his BIur and LLB degrees from the University of South Africa. He practised at the Natal Bar and attained the rank of senior counsel in January 1994.

Justice Langa, together with ten others, were appointed as the first judges of the Constitutional Court. He became its Deputy President in August 1997 and in November 2001 he became the Deputy Chief Justice of South Africa.

Justice Langa was appointed as Chief Justice and head of the Constitutional Court in June 2005 and served until his retirement in October 2009.

Justice Langa was a founding member of the National Association of Democratic Lawyers (NADEL) and served as its president from 1988 until 1994.

Tribute from the judiciary

In a media statement on behalf of the judiciary, Chief Justice Mogoeng Mogoeng expressed his ‘deep sadness’ at the passing. He said Justice Langa’s ‘enormous contribution’ to the development of South Africa’s jurisprudence was known and appreciated worldwide.

Chief Justice Mogoeng said: ‘He served the nation with great distinction not only as Senior Counsel, President of NADEL, and Justice of the Constitutional Court but also in his capacity as Deputy Chief Justice and later as Chief Justice of the Republic … . One of his most valuable contributions was to help develop a judiciary-led court administration model, which would strengthen the institutional independence of the judiciary in this country. Additionally, he together with some of the world’s leading jurists developed the Bangalore Principles on Judicial Ethics which are now embraced by almost all judiciaries in the world’.

Justice Mogoeng said that Justice Langa will be missed for his wisdom, humility and passion for judicial independence and constitutional democracy.

Tribute from the LSSA

The Law Society of South Africa (LSSA) said that it was deeply saddened at his death. In a press release, its co-chairpersons Kathleen Matolo-Dlepu and David Bekker said that the LSSA acknowledges Justice Langa’s role as a founder member of NADEL – one of the LSSA’s six constituent members – and his leadership of NADEL as its president from 1988 to 1994.

Ms Matolo-Dlepu and Mr Bekker said: ‘As a human rights lawyer, his practice as an advocate focused on the struggle against the apartheid system. As the first black African Chief Justice of South Africa, he headed a transforming judiciary and legal profession with strength, humility and dignity.’ They added that Justice Langa’s passion for the training and further education of the judiciary in general were evident in his role in establishing the South African Judicial Education Institute.

Tribute from NADEL

NADEL said that Justice Langa’s contribution to the justice system of South Africa can never be over-emphasised.

In a press release it said: ‘Comrade Pius, as he was known to NADEL, began making his contribution to the development of the justice system in South Africa long before he became Chief Justice. In his capacity as an activist, legal representative to political prisoners and advocate of human rights he strove for justice for all.

The principles contained in our Constitution are those he lived by, worked by, and those he imparted to the many young lawyers to whom he was mentor, teacher, and inspiration’.

It added that what NADEL members will cherish most was his constant availability to give NADEL guidance and support and that it would also greatly miss his quiet strength, humility and wisdom.

NADEL described him as a man of principle who never wavered from his convictions.

Tribute from the KZNLS

The KwaZulu-Natal Law Society (KZNLS) said, in a press release, that in his practise as an advocate and subsequently a judge, Justice Langa ‘manifested the qualities of integrity, impeccable honesty, a keen intellect and decorum which underpins the esteem, status and dignity of our courts’.

The KZNLS said: ‘Judge Langa gave the law and, more broadly, the Constitution a liberal purpose of interpretation to enable the Constitution to play a creative and dynamic role in the expression and the achievement of the ideals and aspirations of our nation and in the articulation of its values’.

Tribute from the BLA

The Black Lawyers Association (BLA) said that Justice Langa’s death was a great loss to the legal profession worldwide. It said that Justice Langa served with great zeal and determination adding that his uncompromising contribution towards the development of constitutional jurisprudence and the law would go a long way in the legal system.

The BLA said that it would remember Justice Langa for his ‘clear and incisive’ approach to law as he, at all times, dispended justice without fear, favour or prejudice.

Tribute from the GCB

The General Council of the Bar (GCB) has described Justice Langa as a ‘true son of Africa’. In a press release the GCB said: ‘Justice Langa has left an indelible mark in the constitutional jurisprudence of our country. He has helped South Africa to carve for it­self a respected place in the world constitutional democracies. His hu­mi­­lity as a person will be difficult to match. His legal acumen will remain a beacon for every lawyer to emulate and his legacy one that we as lawyers and as nation must protect.’

The GCB said that Justice Langa was a recipient of the Sydney and Felicia Kentridge Award. The award is conferred by the GCB to a person in recognition of dedication and excellence in service to law in Southern Africa.

Tribute from the Justice Department

The Justice Minister, Jeff Ra­debe, delivered a speech at Justice Langa’s memorial service. Minister Radebe described Justice Langa as ‘a jurist who has contributed so much to our democratic transformation and our jurisprudential maturity’ and ‘an encyclopedia of our legal system’. Minister Radebe said that most of the work that he did for his clients was done pro bono.

Minister Radebe said: ‘He left this world a better place. Through his tireless contributions to the constitutional development of our country, we are proud to share with both long-established and new democracies our experience in constitution-making. Justice Langa assisted other states to fine-tune their own constitutions when he sat at the Constitutional Review Committee of Zimbabwe, in Rwanda, Tanzania and as Commonwealth Envoy to the democratisation of the Island of Fiji, playing a role in the Lesotho elections for the Southern Africa Development Community, as a member of the police board on the transformation of the police, as a member of the review of health legislation, and the list is endless.’

Minister Radebe said that Justice Langa had a rare listening gift. He said that on one occasion Justice Langa was invited to speak, but he chose to rather listen to the audience than to speak. He put his prepared notes aside and allowed the audience to raise questions about how the wheels of justice turn. ‘This to him was fulfilling,’ said Minister Radebe, adding that ‘by this single action, he destroyed the perception that the law is about the rich and the famous. He also demonstrated that the law can also be a strategic weapon in eradicating poverty and engendering the empowerment of the poor. It is a law that should be at the forefront of addressing the socio-economic rights of shelter, healthcare, food water, social security education and housing, land and the environment.’

Minister Radebe said that Justice Langa was concerned that many South Africans had no clear understanding of how the law works because with many of the letters from the public that the Constitutional Court received, there was no likelihood that their issues could be addressed by the court.

Minister Radebe said that Justice Langa instructed his staff to respond to all the letters regardless of their legal merit. ‘Such was his concern for the ordinary man that he wanted all to find solace and satisfaction in an institution which many of our people fear,’ he said.

Minister Radebe said that in 2007 Justice Langa initiated a nine-month long training programme for aspirant women judges. He said that the objective of the training was to deal with the serious shortage of women on the Bench and women were encouraged to make themselves available for the vacancies in the High Court.

Tribute from government

In delivering the eulogy at former Chief Justice Langa’s funeral, President Jacob Zuma said South Africa had lost a patriot, a freedom fighter and an accomplished jurist who dedicated his life to making the country a better place for all, especially the poor and downtrodden.

President Zuma said: ‘Given Justice Langa’s expertise and accomplishments in both the struggle for liberation and professionally, it was not surprising that former President Nelson Mandela appointed him, together with ten other judges, to serve in the then newly-established Constitutional Court of South Africa at the dawn of freedom and democracy … . Being an activist at heart, this particular judge saw the Bench as another site of struggle. He championed transformation, espousing the notion of transformative constitutionalism’.

President Zuma said that in one of his gender-sensitive judgments, Justice Langa found that the male-oriented rule of customary law dealing with succession had to be declared unconstitutional.  ‘His judgment affirmed the social, legal and political importance of customary law in democratic South Africa and insisted on its equal status, while simultaneously affirming that customary law rules were subject to the discipline of the Constitution which espoused equality for all, both men and women’, he said.

President Zuma said that while others talk of building a better Africa and a better world, Justice Langa gave this vision practical meaning. ‘He worked beyond our borders to advance the cause of freedom, justice, equality, peace, stability, human rights, democracy and the rule of law.’

Nomfundo Manyathi-Jele,

This article was first published in De Rebus in 2013 (Sept) DR 6.

De Rebus