Obit – Langa: Gentle Bastion of Freedom

2013-07-28 14:00

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The passing of Judge Pius Langa means SA has lost a humble man of immense legal and social intellect, writes Mathatha Tsedu

We sat having lunch at a restaurant in Killarney, a few metres from his brother’s apartment where he told me he was squatting. It was 2010 and I had been tasked with project managing the Press Freedom Commission (PFC).

We had decided we needed a former judge, preferably of the Constitutional Court. I set off to meet with Judge Yvonne Mokgoro, but she was about to start a big project of creating a department of the chief justice.

I steeled myself to face the former chief justice, Pius Langa. He had been on my radar, but I had thought it was not going to be. So after my encounter with Mokgoro, I called him and set up an appointment.

The lunch in Killarney was the result. We were not strangers to each other, so the first almost 40 minutes were taken up with swapping stories of pain and loneliness.

His pain and solitude was from losing his wife a year earlier, and mine was for my son. We also spoke politics and laughed a great deal about the ­circus that sometimes passes for politics in our country.

Eventually, we moved on to why we were meeting. I explained the PFC mandate and what I was asking him to do. He listened attentively, asking questions now and then.

He then looked at me closely and said: “Now, Mathatha, if you were to start a sentence with the word ‘whereas’, explaining this thing that you are talking about, how would that sentence go and where would it end?”

I tried my best to do an SA Students’ Organisation resolution about “whereas some people felt the regulatory system for print media was inadequate” and “whereas organisations such as the ANC were calling for a media appeals tribunal with powers to jail journalists, and further noting that the press industry has decided to create the PFC to look at possible changes to the regulations, therefore men and women of goodwill were needed to help the process”.

I looked at him and he looked back, smiled and said: “Not bad, Mathatha, but why should I do this?” I spoke some more and later he said to me he needed time to think, but he was not convinced he should do it.

We agreed to meet again, and it was to be four meetings and a trip by me to Cape Town to see Justice Minister Jeff Radebe, before Judge Langa said he was in. I was to later learn this was his trademark: patient, thorough and never in a hurry to make decisions.

We worked together in the PFC with a group of other prominent individuals for almost a year. I became a regular at his “squatter camp” in Killarney and later on at his town house in Bryanston. Early on in our work, he was very ill, but would still come to meetings.

One day, he called me to the apartment and, after talking tennis and Formula 1 (he was a great Ferrari fan) he told me he wanted me to release him from his duties at the PFC.

“I am not well and I am not used to not firing on all six cylinders. I feel I am holding the team back, so I want you to talk to the others and ask them to please ­excuse me.”

He could easily have told me he was out, but humble Langa was not one to say it that way. He was asking little official me to release him.

I told him I did not agree, that I thought he should stay, and he would not have to attend each meeting. His bigger role was not chairing but providing leadership and wise counsel. I said I would put his proposal on the table.

He laughed and said if that was my view then he had asked the wrong person to speak for him. I told him it was too late and there was no one else anyway. Needless to say, history has recorded that he led the PFC to the end.

Humorous and very serious at the same time, Langa could see the lighter side of anything and say it with his deadpan face, irrespective of how serious the issue was. He would get to the seriousness in his own time.

His DStv decoder was not on a dual-view system, so he shared the viewing with his helper Sisi. She was really into all the gospel channels and I remember one day sitting with him while he was boasting that he thought he, by then, knew all the pastors so-and-so who were preaching their miracles every hour.

He was considerate to the point of allowing Sisi’s entertainment choices to determine what he watched, as long as she gave him some time to watch the news.

In the deliberations of the commission, it would sometimes become quite emotive when the matter of how far regulation of the press should go when issues of sexuality and violence came up.

Langa would let everyone have their say and, in his own time, come in with an incisive question whose only correct answer would show what a reasonable position on the issue was.

He never imposed his views. He ensured consensus with his gentle and soft voice, deceptively carrying steely resolve to ensure openness and freedom of the highest possible order.

His counsel ensured we produced a report that moved the debate around regulation to the point where today, after some slight adjustments, the SA Press Council is one of the most judge-heavy regulatory bodies in the world.

He juggled his life between Durban – where he had built his retirement home, but which had become hauntingly too big after the death of his wife – and Joburg. In late April, about a month after his 74th birthday, he fell ill and was admitted to Milpark Hospital in Joburg.

He was admitted there several times and I remember one day when he said he was tired of hospital food and his son had to go outside the hospital to buy fish and chips.

When the food came, he bid his family goodbye and we sat, just the two of us, while he sang the praises of fish and chips and wondering aloud why the hospital did not serve such fine food instead of the creamy spinach and boiled carrots.

Before all this PFC work, we had collaborated when I was chairing the SA National Editors’ Forum and we produced books on court reporting. He wrote the foreword.

Together with the late chief justice Arthur Chaskalson and former Judge Richard Goldstone, they pioneered the opening of courts to television broadcast, starting with judgments of the Constitutional Court, but eventually opening them all.

His passing means South Africa has lost a humble man of immense legal and social intellect. He fought against the racist policies of the settler regime and, in freedom, stood his ground against encroachment into the independence of the judiciary by the new powers.

One time I was invited to speak at a congratulatory function for the appointment of a new judge.

I told him I wanted to boast about knowing him and working with him and asked for a quote. He laughed out loud, but then gave me a serious quote: “Tell him to broaden his mind, not just on the law but to read even more widely. Tell him not to shun people. People must be able to come to him for advice.

“Tell him the mission is to open the courts and stop them from being the foreboding places they used to be. Lastly, tell him to work diligently and make sure his judgments help this country be a better place for all. When he does all those things he will be dispensing justice.”

And that, for me, is Langa’s legacy. He did all those things and more. When each of us ensure broadmindedness through knowledge, and ensure accessibility for all people and do our work to the best of our ability, we create a great nation that cares for people and not just for self.

Thanks, judge, for allowing me into that space. I hope I am worthy of that privilege. Peace.

The life and times of Pius Nkonzo Langa

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