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Speech by Max Sisulu, MP, Speaker of the National Assembly, at the Ceremonial Court Session in Honour of the Late Former Chief Justice Pius Langa, Constitutional Court of South Africa

27 Aug 2013

The Langa Family,
Honourable Chief Justice of the Constitutional Court, Justice Mogoeng Mogoeng,
Honourable Deputy Chief Justice of the Constitutional Court, Justice Dikgang Moseneke,
Honourable Minister of Justice and Constitutional Development, Mr Jeff Radebe,
Honourable Judges,
Distinguished guests.

I am honoured to represent Parliament of the Republic of South Africa at this special ceremonial court session in honour of our beloved and highly-respected former Chief Justice Pius Nkonzo Langa.

Through my close friendship with his younger siblings Mandla and Bheki in exile, I regarded Pius by extension as my elder brother. I personally got to know him as a person with sharp wit,a brilliant mind and a keen sense of humour.

He made such a significant contribution to our country that it is not surprising that so much praise has been attributed to Pius - a gentle giant, a brilliant jurist and intellectual who was courageous and principled, modest with a lack of personal ambition, never visibly flustered and a great listener who chose his words carefully. Pius lived up to his name - He was Pius by name and pious in life.

All of these traits exhibited his great love for people and was used as a tool to uplift and protect them. It was through the law that he made his greatest contribution – either against apartheid tyranny or post-1994 in his eloquently written judgments that exhibited his kindness, compassion and humanitarianism.

Our grief and heart-felt loss at the passing of this truly great South African is tempered by the knowledge that Pius himself, known as a tough taskmaster, would have been satisfied with his contribution to our collective struggle for freedom, democracy and human rights. His contribution in this regard is indeed enormous!

Pius’s triumph over adverse circumstances is now well known. We hope that his triumph will also be well documented for posterity. His early ambition to become a lawyer would have been short-lived had he not had the steely determination and resolve to pursue it despite all the odds. Indeed, he rose to the pinnacle of a legal career as this country’s’ first black Chief Justice in 2005. Somewhere Pius must have always known that the law was his destiny and that he would make an enormous contribution to our country through it.

During the apartheid era his legal practice reflected his deep seated conviction to protect the oppressed from a brutal system that used the law as a sword to cut down the rights and freedoms of its people. Again during the transition to democracy, Pius played a key role in shaping our constitutional dispensation.

When I returned to Parliament in 2009, it was a great honour for me to be sworn in as a Member by Chief Justice Langa and to uphold the very Constitution he helped to write and defended so excellently. I was even more humbled when he presided over my election as Speaker of the National Assembly. I felt similarly privileged to preside over the sitting of Parliament to honour his contribution to our country and our democracy when we bid him farewell on his retirement from the bench.

Ladies and gentlemen,

In the celebrated case of State v Makwanyane which has beem mentioned earlier on which abolished the death penalty, Pius’ humanity and compassion again shone through. Despite his own family loss, he held that “implicit in the provisions and tone of the Constitution are values of a more mature society, which relies on moral persuasion rather than force; on example rather than coercion.

Those who are inclined to kill need to be told why it is wrong. The reason surely must be the principle that the value of human life is inestimable, and it is a value which the State must uphold by example.”

Pius’ understanding of the Constitution was that it was fundamentally designed to achieve a better life for all our people. This he called ‘transformative constitutionalism’ and which he saw as “a social and an economic revolution”. The first and second Constitutional Court, under Arthur Chaskalson then Pius Langa developed this progressive understanding of the values underlying our Constitution.

This emphasised that the Bill of Rights must be understood both ‘generously’ as well as ‘purposively’ to give expression to the underlying values of the Constitution.

This was based on an understanding that the Constitution signalled a break from our oppressive and exploitative past and was predicated on achieving substantive, and not mere formal equality.

During his interview with the Judicial Services Commission Pius said that and I quote: “The strength of a democracy is measured by the confidence the public has in the judiciary and the court”. Given the complicit role of the judiciary in enforcing harsh apartheid laws, at that time our people lacked faith in the judicial system.

Significantly, it was the jurisprudence of the Chaskalson and Langa courts that allayed our fears that an unelected judiciary would be used to thwart transformational laws passed by a democratically elected legislature. Pius Langa ensured that the law promoted equality and helped instil people’s confidence in our judicial system and ultimately, our constitutional democracy.

We moved from parliamentary supremacy to a democracy based on the supremacy of the Constitution where both the substance and the processes of Parliament can now be subjected to scrutiny for compliance. In one of his judgments he said: “It is a necessary component of the doctrine of separation of powers that courts have a constitutional obligation to ensure that the exercise of power by other branches of government occurs within constitutional bounds”.

Chief Justice,

As I mentioned at his funeral - Parliament and our country are deeply indebted to Pius Langa for his contribution to our democracy. On 20 August 2013, at the first sitting of Parlaiment since Pius’ departure, the National Assembly held a special commemoration for Pius, where Members from across the spectrum paid tribute to his contribution to consolidating our democracy.

For Pius the establishment of a truly equal society and the provision of basic socio-economic rights to all are a necessary part of transformation, but that was not an end in itself. His visionary understanding was that and I quote:

“Transformation is a permanent ideal, a way of looking at the world that creates a space in which dialogue and contestation is truly possible, in which new ways of being are constantly explored and created, accepted and rejected and in which change is unpredictable but the idea of change is constant”.

In an article that Pius wrote in a Journal called Law, Democracy and Development in 2000 he concluded by stating: “My vision is of a country where the citizens work together to fully realise the rights contained in the Constitution and co-operate to create a warm, caring society whose members are able to maximise their personal potential”.

As a tribute to this great icon we must continue the fight to eradicate poverty among our people to ensure that they too realise the benefits of the freedom he worked so tirelessly for.

Hamba kahle Zwide ka Langa-Sothele-Somaphunga, Ndwandwe-Madevu.

Ngiya Bonga, Ndiya Bulela!

I thank you!