Born in Bushbuckridge, South Africa on 25 March 1939, Pius Nkonzo Langa, the second of seven children born to deeply devout parents, completed his high school education through private study and then obtained the B Iuris and LL B degrees (in 1973 and 1976 respectively) by long distance learning through the University of South Africa. His working life commenced in 1957 at a shirt factory; between 1960 until 1977, he served in various capacities in the Department of Justice from interpreter/messenger to magistrate. He was admitted as an Advocate of the Supreme Court of South Africa in June 1977, practised at the Natal Bar and attained the rank of Senior Counsel in January 1994.
When the Constitutional Court of South Africa was established with the advent of a post apartheid constitutional and democratic era in 1994, Justice Langa was appointed together with ten others as the first Judges of the new Court. He became its Deputy President in August 1997 and, in November 2001, assumed the position of Deputy Chief Justice of South Africa. He was appointed as the country’s Chief Justice and head of the Constitutional Court with effect from June 2005.As Chief Justice, Langa is chairperson of the Judicial Service Commission and is also the current chairperson of the Southern African Judges Commission, a forum of Chief Justices in Southern and East Africa. He is also a member of the Permanent Court of Arbitration.
Langa’s practice as an Advocate reflected the struggle against the apartheid system and his clientele thus included the underprivileged, various civic bodies, trade unions and people charged with political offences and under the oppressive apartheid security legislation.
He served on the executive committee of the Democratic Lawyers Association (DLA) and was founder member of the National Association of Democratic Lawyers (NADEL) and served as its President from 1988 to 1994. He has served on the boards and as trustee of various law-related institutions, and was involved in the founding of the South African Legal Defence Fund (SALDEF). He served as Commissioner of the pre-Constitutional Human Rights Commission (later known as the Human Rights Committee).
As a township resident in his early working life, he was always involved in community work and in attempts to improve the quality of life among the communities around him. He helped organise civic organisations and residents’ associations and gave guidance to youth and recreational clubs.
During the ‘80’s and early ‘90’s, he served in the structures of the United Democratic Front (UDF), was involved in the work of the Convention for a Democratic South Africa (CODESA) and of its successor, the Multi-Party Negotiating Forum. He was also a member of the Constitutional Committee of the African National Congress and was in the advisor group during the Groote Schuur and Pretoria “Talks-about-Talks”. He served as a founder member of the Release Mandela Committee (Natal) and was a member of the Regional and National Reception Committees formed to prepare for and accelerate the release of political prisoners. He was appointed to the Police Board to assist with the transformation of the Police Services under the aegis of the National Peace Accord, which was set up to stem the violence that plagued parts of South Africa in the eighties and early nineties; chaired the Technical Committee to review and rationalise Health Legislation, served as a member of the Commission of Inquiry into Unrest in Prisons and was a member of the Commission of Inquiry into certain alleged covert SADF activities.
In 1998 he chaired a Commission to probe the Lesotho elections on behalf of the Southern African Development and Economic Community (SADC). In 2000 he was appointed the Commonwealth’s Special Envoy to assist the Fiji Islands’ return to democracy. He has participated in the work of constitutional review commissions in Sri Lanka, Zimbabwe, Rwanda and Tanzania. He led a delegation of the International Bar Association to Cameroon, at the request of the Cameroon Government, to review and integrate that country’s system of criminal procedure. He is a member of the Judicial Integrity Group which was responsible for the compilation of the Bangalore Principles for Judicial Ethics.He has, over the years, organised and/or participated in numerous conferences, workshops and seminars on human rights, justice and other constitutional issues and also delivered speeches on various related topics in South Africa and in many countries abroad.
Langa was appointed Honorary Professor in the Department of Procedural and Clinical Law, University of Natal in June 1998 and has served for several years as Distinguished Visiting Professor at the Southern Methodist University, Dallas, Texas in the United States of America. He was Chancellor of the University of Natal (1998 to 2004) he held same role at Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University.
He has been honoured with awards for the advancement of justice and human rights by the Black Lawyers Association, the National Association of Democratic Lawyers and the Judicial Council of the American National Bar Association. He was awarded the 2004 Justice Prize, jointly with the then Chief Justice of South Africa, Justice Arthur Chaskalson, by the Peter Gruber Foundation in the United States of America and received the 2006 Sydney and Felicia Kentridge Award for Service to Justice in 2006. On 11 March 2008 he was honoured with the eThekwini Living Legends award together with other local heroes who have excelled in their respective fields. On 22 April 2008, the President of the Republic of South Africa, Mr T Mbeki, bestowed upon him the Order of the Supreme Counsellor of the Baobab: Gold. He retired in 2009 and went on to chair the Press Freedom Commission, which looked into the regulation of the print media in South Africa.
Langa has been 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 and the degree Doctor of the Public Service, honoris causa, by the North Eastern University, Boston, Massachussets, USA.
Pius Langa died at the age of 74, at the Milpark Hospital, Johannesburg. He was hospitalized for about a month due a long illness.