An impeccable sense of fairness

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Justice Personified | Pius Langa’s grace and wisdom made him a founding father of our rights-based constitutional democracy, writes Albie Sachs.

Pius loved the thought that the law, long a weapon of division and oppression, could be an instrument of emancipation What special difficulties the court encountered came from outside rather than within ... Pius was the shock absorber

A decade ago, a room full of luminaries at a ceremony in the United Nations building in New York waited expectantly as Pius Langa followed Arthur Chaskalson to the podium. Arthur had thanked the Gruber Foundation for awarding them jointly its prestigious annual Prize for Justice, and now it was his turn to offer sonorous and scholarly words on matters of jurisprudential interest.

He opened: “Twinkle, twinkle, little star . . .” The people around me were surprised, intrigued and delighted. Pius explained that as a six-year-old child, barefoot and in short pants, he would be placed by his parents on a box to repeat the poem to admiring visitors. Now, he told us, he recalled the hope and idealism of that little boy and of all the children in our country.

I, too, thought back on his journey. What a story. Starting as court interpreter, he had by then risen to become deputy chief justice of South Africa. Along the way he had never lost his sense of wonder about the strange, exciting and baffling world in which he lived.

Our first meetings had taken place at joyous moments in what had often been a painful journey. In 1990, struggle lawyers from outside South Africa reunited with those who had done battle inside. Staying with Pius and his wonderful wife, Beauty, in their Umlazi home in Durban had felt for me like having moved from the frontline states to the front line of the struggle inside the country.

Down the road were the shells of burnt-out houses. Being an advocate and the president of the National Association of Democratic Lawyers had given him no immunity from being assassinated or seeing his house torched. Yet he had stayed calmly in place, doing what he could in his quiet and authoritative way to bring peace to the area.

I remembered how, when we had been driving in Durban past a low-lying public works building, he had mentioned, literally in passing, that it had been a native pass office where, at 16, he had been ordered to strip and stand to have his testicles felt. He was young, he told me, that was life, but what he had not been able to take was seeing men old enough to be his father treated in this way.

Another flashback was to an international workshop to consider how the judiciary in South Africa could be transformed. The two keynote papers on why South Africa should have a constitutional court had been presented by, yes, Arthur Chaskalson and Pius Langa. The magisterial Arthur had been followed by the wise Pius. And, as it happened, when the starry-eyed idea of having a human-rights-based constitution actually became reality, Arthur was appointed its head and Pius one of the 11 justices.

Part of the wonder of the court was that people like Pius, who had had to carry a pass, and myself, who had fought against the pass laws, and former judges who had been appalled by the vicious laws and done what they could to restrict their impact could all be working together as justices to help transform our country through the law in a manner that ensured that such abominations would be banished forever.

Those early years on the court were particularly exciting and strenuous. What powerful legal minds, what openness of debate — it was enthralling! Colleagues like Justice Ismail Mahomed, Justice John Didcott and, for a while, Justice Sydney Kentridge, expressed extraordinary legal thought. We had to create a new judicial style and language befitting our new democratic and rights-based dispensation.

As we discussed momentous issues, such as capital punishment, I always found myself particularly anxious to get the views of two of my colleagues: Arthur, because of his magnificent legal brain, and Pius, because of his extraordinary sensibility, broadness of vision and innate fairness. It was not that Arthur lacked sensibility or Pius was without technical skill; on the contrary.

The fact was that each on his own was unusually powerful in a particular respect, and in combination they were unsurpassed. Pius loved ideas and he loved the thought that the law, which had long served as a weapon of division and oppression, could now be fashioned into an instrument of emancipation.

He was a great listener, spoke slowly, chose his words carefully and was always utterly collegial. He worked long and hard on his first judgment for the court. It was masterly. In carefully crafted and reflectively subtle language, he explained why beating juvenile offenders could no longer be tolerated as part of the legal system.

Nearly two decades have passed, yet I still recall the elegant way in which he pointed out that our new constitution did not permit the deliberate infliction of pain on a child’s body as a mode of correction and, secondly, that the state was the great teacher in our society and should not set the example of using violence as a means of achieving its objectives.

A few years later, when Ismail Mahomed left the Constitutional Court to become head of the Supreme Court of Appeal in Bloemfontein, there was only one person on the Constitutional Court who did not think that Pius should automatically replace him as Arthur’s deputy. That person was Pius himself.

With a characteristic modesty and lack of personal ambition, he asked whether he had enough experience. We were convinced that he did. Indeed, his modesty was one of the qualities that made him suitable. So we persuaded him to allow his name to go forward. And we were right!

Pius gave enormous support to Arthur. And when Arthur finally retired, Pius took up the reins with great aplomb, in his turn receiving massive support from Deputy Chief Justice Dikgang Moseneke.

In this way, with many new members, the court carried on seamlessly delivering judgments on matters of significant public importance.

What special difficulties the court encountered in reality came from outside rather than from within its ranks. Indeed, painful matters such as those concerning the judge president of the high court in Cape Town, or being called “counter-revolutionaries” by a senior and influential political leader, did not distract the court unduly from its task of dispensing constitutional justice. Pius was, in fact, the shock absorber. The personal cost must have been considerable, but the caravan of justice moved on.

Why, I wonder, do we always smile when we remember Pius? He loved people, whether judicial colleagues or clerks or admin staff or security, each one with their characteristic personal quirks and specific cultural traits. He had a sly sense of humour, knew every one of us inside out and made observations in a civil and sensitive manner.

And it was natural that when busloads of people from Matatiele came to attend litigation over changed provincial borders, or people from the Baloyi community arrived to find out whether a woman could be their hosi or traditional leader, he should at the end of the day’s proceedings thank them all for their patience and decorum.

His sense of justice and fairness was impeccable. He was proud to be an African and loved conversing in his mother tongue, Zulu, while at the same time showing in everything he did his total conviction that South Africa belonged to all who lived in it. In his view, far from being un-African, to show respect for human dignity and equality and repudiate all forms of arbitrariness in public life stemmed from a profound commitment to Ubuntu, the precious reservoir of hope and interdependence that underlay and nourished the constitution.

Pius was adored by his clerks, loved by his colleagues and admired across the board by the legal profession. The continuing vigour and creativity of the Constitutional Court is the greatest tribute to his life’s work.

And so the spear that Pius Langa leaves behind for us to pick up twinkles with hope and humanity, shining with the light of constitutionalism and thrusting forward in the noblest of all pursuits: the liberation of humankind.

By: Albie Sachs

Sachs was a justice on the Constitutional Court from 1994 to 2009

Photo source: ALON SKUY

Article Source: Sunday Times