Pius Nkonzo Langa was born in Bushbuckridge in the eastern Transvaal (now Mpumalanga), South Africa, on 25 March 1939, the second of seven children. In 1957, he went to work at a shirtmaking factory until 1960. During this period he enrolled for his high school education which he financed through private means matriculating in 1960. Langa then found employment as a messenger of court and interpreter for the Department of Justice. Langa married Thandekile Mncwabe in 1966 and the couple had six children.
Langa enrolled at the University of South Africa (UNISA) for studies in law through correspondence. He successfully completed a B Iuris in 1973 and three years later completed his LLB degree. Through sheer hard work Langa rose to become a prosecutor and later a magistrate. In 1977, he resigned from the Department of Justice, and in June of that year was admitted as an Advocate of the Supreme Court in Natal.
During this period, Langa took on various civil and criminal cases. Inevitably, he came across political cases involving anti-Apartheid activists, and represented political activists mostly in Natal, Eastern Cape and Cape Town. Among those who sought his services were members of trade unions and civic bodies. He worked closely with other lawyers such as Griffiths Mxenge, Navi Pillay and Phyllis Naidoo who defended political activists.
In the 1980s, Langa served in various organizations, including those that were fighting against the Apartheid government. For instance, he served in the structures of the United Democratic Front (UDF). He became an executive committee member of the Democratic Lawyers’ Association (DLA) and became active in the formation of the National Association of Democratic Lawyers (NADEL), serving on its steering committee. Langa served as NADEL president from 1988 until his resignation in 1994.
Langa became a founder member of the Release Mandela Committee in Natal, formed in January 1990 and also served in the Regional and National Reception Committees that were formed to apply pressure on the Apartheid government to release political prisoners. As the transition to a democratic South Africa gathered momentum and multiparty negotiations began in earnest with the convening of Convention for a Democratic South Africa (CODESA).
Langa was also appointed to serve on the Police Board, a body established under the National Peace Accord to oversee the transformation of the police services that were accused of perpetrating political violence in the 1980s and 1990s. Langa also chaired a technical committee tasked with reviewing health legislation and later became a member of a Commission of Inquiry into Unrest in Prisons.
Langa was involved in CODESA and later the Multi-Party Negotiating Forum. He served as a member of the African National Congress (ANC)’s Constitutional Committee and in advisory group during the Groote Schuur and Pretoria Minutes. In 1994, after resigning from NADEL, he was appointed a Judge of the Constitutional Court of South Africa in October, becoming Deputy President three years later.
In 1998, he chaired a commission tasked with investigating issues around the Lesotho elections on behalf of the Southern African Development and Economic Community (SADC). In June that year, he was appointed Honorary Professor at the University of Natal in the Department of Procedural and Clinical Law. Subsequently, that same year he was appointed as Chancellor of the University of Natal until 2004.
Langa’s was appointed as the Commonwealth's Special Envoy to assist the Fiji Islands in resolving its political problems. In addition, he was involved in Constitutional Review commissions in Rwanda, Zimbabwe, Tanzania and Sri Lanka. As a result of his work in the legal sphere, he became a member of Judicial Integrity Group, the watchdog for international judicial norms and standards, and was charged with overseeing the drafting of the Bangalore Principles for Judicial Ethics.
In June 2005 Langa was appointed Chief Justice and head of the Constitutional Court. In recognition of his work, on 22 April 2008, Langa received the Order of the Supreme Counsellor of the Baobab: Gold that was bestowed on him by President Thabo Mbeki.
Langa retired in 2009 and in August that same year his wife passed away.
Awards and Honours
Awarded the 2004 Justice Prize by the Peter Gruber Foundation in the United States of America
Given the 2006 Sydney and Felicia Kentridge Award for Service to Justice
Honoured with the eThekwini Living Legends award on 11 March 2008
He was Awarded Doctor of Laws degrees, honoris causa, by the Universities of Zululand, Western Cape, Cape Town, Unisa, Rhodes, Yale (USA) and the National University of Ireland.
He was also honoured with a degree of Doctor of the Public Service, honoris causa, by the North Eastern University, Boston, Massachusetts, USA.
Pius Nkonzo Langa passed away on 24 July 2013 at Milpark Hospital in Johannesburg.
• Constitutional Court, Former Chief Justice Pius Langa, from the Constitutional Court, [online], Available at www.constitutionalcourt.org.za[Accessed 24 July 2013]