Memorial lecture: Pius Langa put the past behind him to build a better society

As we celebrate Chief Justice Pius Langa's life, the world grapples with resurfacing divides and deepening conflicts, leaving innocent bystanders as victims in battles with no winners.


As we celebrate the life of one of South Africa’s great legal minds, we are witnesses to a world at war. Old divides have resurfaced. Across the globe, divides are deepening and in the process, innocent bystanders become the victims in conflicts where there are no winners. Former chief justice Pius Langa became known for his measured approach to judgments, clothing his carefully worded views with a strong measure of Ubuntu, but also encouraging his esteemed colleagues to “do the right thing”. He broadened the way we view the law and made an immeasurable contribution towards a much more inclusive…

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As we celebrate the life of one of South Africa’s great legal minds, we are witnesses to a world at war.

Old divides have resurfaced. Across the globe, divides are deepening and in the process, innocent bystanders become the victims in conflicts where there are no winners.

Former chief justice Pius Langa became known for his measured approach to judgments, clothing his carefully worded views with a strong measure of Ubuntu, but also encouraging his esteemed colleagues to “do the right thing”.

He broadened the way we view the law and made an immeasurable contribution towards a much more inclusive legal philosophy.

Those global leaders who are quick to harsh actions and judgment and even quicker to choose sides and encourage warring parties to engage in battle could do with a calm reflection of those words – “do the right thing” – without rushing to positions that are cast in stone.

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None of the current (and past) global conflicts come with an easy history nor simple solutions.

History has taught us that in every conflict there are rights and wrongs on both sides.

I am, when reflecting on both the global turbulence as well as our own fragile democracy, reminded of the biblical truth: “Blessed are the peacemakers.”

Blessed are those who attempt to find win-win solutions where others stoke the flames of conflict.

Langa’s story reflects that of struggle, determination and of a leader who put the past behind him and dedicated his life to building a better, more balanced society.

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From poverty and long hours of sweat in a shirt factory, he studied day and night to eventually become the second chief justice of post-1994 South Africa.

The architects of our hard-fought democracy, including him, would not be proud of the perilous state of our country, nor our legal fraternity.

Icons such as he, Nelson Mandela and Archbishop Desmond Tutu would be disappointed at the slim harvest of democracy. Recent developments have shown the gulf between the legislative and executive branches on one side and the judiciary on the other has deepened, and the constitutionally embedded respect between them is being whittled away.

The Zondo commission bequeathed us a framework on how to redesign and correct the obvious flaws. Sadly, very little has come of all the carefully scripted corrective proposals.

The executive has taken aim at the judiciary and the judiciary has reacted by stating its deep disappointment with the lack of action from government and the National Assembly.

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It is a shocking state of affairs when, only 30 years into liberation, the three pillars of the state are at odds with one another.

What we are witnessing is the slippery slope of a government which uses its majority to sweep under the mattress evidence of wrongdoing and, in doing so, neglecting their constitutional and sacred duty to “do the right thing”.

In doing so, its support amongst the broader population is ebbing away. The government – and governing party – can no longer claim they are the moral leaders, nor the conscience of society.

The cancer of public sector corruption is growing, in spite of the many promises to clean up the shameful legacy of state capture.

The power of the judiciary to act as an independent arbiter to settle matters in a decisive manner is being undermined as the government is more than willing to look the other way when it should, in fact, support judicial reports and findings.

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It is a dark and dangerous situation when we are ruled by parliamentary votes, rather than principle.

In this environment of political instability where we must plead for basic rights such as electricity, water and stable infrastructure, we are witnessing the emergence of a debate on how we can mobilise peaceful resistance to the cynical management of our hard-earned taxes.

We need strong leadership to illustrate that we are moving towards a better life for all, and not a better life for a small group of well-connected politicians and businessmen and women.

*Phosa is a former freedom fighter, activist, political leader and provincial premier.

*This is an edited version of the speech he gave at the fourth Pius Langa memorial lecture.

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