Langa was a public servant ‘in the highest sense’

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Pius Nkonzo Langa died on Wednesday in a Johannesburg hospital after a long illness. He was 74. Langa was South Africa’s fourth post-apartheid chief justice (after Michael Corbett, Ismail Mahomed and Arthur Chaskalson).

Born in Bushbuckbridge on March 5 1939, he matriculated in 1960 by private study. He had worked in a shirt factory to make this possible. He obtained his law degrees the hard way, by external study through the University of South Africa, in 1973 and 1976, while supporting his family, to whom he was devoted.

Langa’s experience of the legal system was unrivalled. He served, successively, as court interpreter, public prosecutor and magistrate (1960-1977); advocate (1977-1994); judge and deputy president of the Constitutional Court (1994-2001); deputy chief justice (2001-2005); and chief justice (2005-2009).

When he took silk shortly before his elevation in 1994, he was one of only four African practitioners at the Natal Bar.

To the office of chief justice, Langa brought his self-effacing personal dignity. In mien and in the authority he so lightly wore, he was a legal pachyderm. He presided and spoke with quiet calm and palpable stature. He said little in court. He believed that the case should come: that the litigants must have the sense that what they had to say was indeed heard, assessed and addressed. His interventions were few and to the point. They sought to clarify, to expose fallacies, and to test the proposition — no more.

Like Zimbabwe’s outstanding chief justice, Enoch Dumbutshena, Langa was universally respected, too, for his obvious wisdom and sense of justice. His human and professional experience came together to make him a careful, measured assayer in the most fraught matters.

He managed to be detached, without being indifferent. He personified the principled judge, concerned about realising for all people what the constitution intended. He was its scrupulously independent gatekeeper.

Langa was not a place-seeker. Quite the contrary. He had doubts about advancement at each stage of his life, questioning (like the umfundisi in Cry the Beloved Country) his own worthiness. He attained high office because he earned the personal regard and trust of those who worked with him.

This was certainly the case at the Bar in the security trials to which so much of his time was given in the 1980s. He was an astute advocate, with insights into witnesses, clients, judges and adversaries that stood him in good stead. In volatile situations, in court and out, his was the voice of reason.

As a judge he strove to build consensus with colleagues. He felt no need for his personal voice to be heard, unless he had a clearly different point to make. He believed that tensions with the government and within the profession were matters for quiet reflection and discussion, where possible. Conflict wearied him. If he had a fault, it was perhaps avoiding it when perhaps the nettle had to be grasped.

Langa the person was warm and considerate. He had a wry sense of self-deprecating humour. He was stoic in the face of great misfortunes (losing his son and grandson, and thereafter his wife, in traumatic circumstances). His stock response to misfortunes, and the strain of issues with which he had to contend, was as elegiac as it was constant: "This, too, will pass."

Langa was a public servant in the highest sense. Not for him the mansion, or motorcade, or excessive sense of office. He served. He had done so in the legal profession (a founding member first of the Democratic Lawyers Association and then the National Association of Democratic Lawyers) and he continued to do so as a judge in a number of university and legal institutions.

He took part in structures of the United Democratic Front and was involved in the Convention for a Democratic South Africa as a member of the constitutional committee of the African National Congress. In retirement, he still served part-time as a judge of appeal (in Namibia) and on several international bodies.

He was awarded honorary doctorates by the Universities of the Witwatersrand, Cape Town and Zululand and was chancellor of the University of Natal. The highest presidential honour — the Order of the Baobab (Gold Class) — was also conferred upon him.

It is formulaic to say that someone is missed. Of Langa, it is, however, true — personally, professionally, institutionally.


Gauntlett, SC, is a former chairman of the South African Bar.

Picture Caption: Former chief justice Pius Langa.


Article Source: Business Day



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