Born in Bushbuckridge in 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 and 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 the country’s Chief Justice and head of the Constitutional Court with effect from June 2005 and served until his retirement in October 2009. As Chief Justice he chaired the Judicial Service Commission and the Southern African Judges Commission, a forum of regional chief justices. He was also a member of the Permanent Court of Arbitration.
Justice 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 under the oppressive apartheid security legislation
He served on the executive committee of the Democratic Lawyers Association (DLA) and was a founder member of the National Association of Democratic Lawyers (NADEL) and its President from 1988 to 1994. In addition he served on the boards and as a trustee of various law-related institutions, and was involved in the founding of the South African Legal Defence Fund (SALDEF). He served as a commissioner on the pre-constitutional Human Rights Commission (later known as the Human Rights Committee).
As a township resident in his early working life, he constantly involved himself in community work and in attempts to improve the quality of life in the communities around him. He helped organise civic organisations and residents' associations and gave guidance to youth and recreational clubs.
During the '80s and early '90s he served in the structures of the United Democratic Front (UDF) and 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 a member of the advisor group during the Groote Schuur and Pretoria “Talks-about-Talks”. A founder member of the Release Mandela Committee (Natal), he 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 '80s and early '90s, chaired the technical committee to review and rationalise health legislation, was a member of the first commission of inquiry appointed by President Mandela (the 1994 Commission of Inquiry into Unrest in Prisons) and was a member of the 1998 "Mohamed Commission" which inquired into certain allegations in the so-called "Meiring Report".
In the same year, 1998, he chaired a commission probing the Lesotho elections on behalf of the Southern African Development and Economic Community (SADC) and in 2000 he was appointed the Commonwealth’s Special Envoy to assist the Fiji Islands’ return to democracy. He subsequently participated in the work of constitutional review commissions in Sri Lanka, Zimbabwe, Rwanda and Tanzania and led a delegation of the International Bar Association (IBA) to Cameroon, at the request of the Cameroon Government, to review and integrate that country’s system of criminal procedure. He was a member of the Judicial Integrity Group which was responsible for the compilation of the Bangalore Principles of Judicial Conduct (2002).
Over the years Justice Langa organised and/or participated in numerous conferences, workshops and seminars on human rights, justice and other constitutional issues and delivered speeches on various related topics in South Africa and in many countries abroad.
Justice Langa was appointed an honorary professor in the Department of Procedural and Clinical Law at the University of Natal in June 1998 and served for several years as Distinguished Visiting Professor at the Southern Methodist University, Dallas, Texas. He was Chancellor of the University of Natal (1998-2004) and the first Chancellor of the Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University (2006-2010).
Justice Langa garnered awards for the advancement of justice and human rights from 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, Justice Arthur Chaskalson, by the Peter Gruber Foundation (USA) and the 2006 Sydney and Felicia Kentridge Award for Service to Justice. In March 2008 he was honoured with the eThekwini Living Legends award, together with other local figures who had excelled in their respective fields, and the following month President Thabo Mbeki bestowed upon him the Order of the Supreme Counsellor of the Baobab: Gold.
At home the Universities of Zululand, the Western Cape, Cape Town and South Africa and Rhodes University, and abroad Yale University, the National University of Ireland and North-Eastern University (Boston) all awarded him honorary doctorates.
A family man, Justice Langa married Thandekile Mncwabe (1944-2009) in 1966; the marriage was blessed with six children and a number of grandchildren.
Justice Langa died in Johannesburg on 24 July 2013.
Service on the Constitutional Court
- Justice 1994 - 2001 Appointed by President Nelson Mandela
- Deputy Chief Justice 2001 - 2005
- Elevated by President Thabo Mbheki to Chief Justice 2005 - 2009
Former Chief Justice Pius Langa farewell video
Judging in a Changing Society: South African Context
Second Judicial Conference for South African Judges
Obituaries and Tributes
The Presidency: President Jacob Zuma conveys his condolences on the passing of former Chief Justice Langa
Office of the Chief Justice: Chief Justice Mogoeng Mogoeng pays tribute to Pius Langa
Deputy Chief Justice Moseneke:Tribute to former Chief Justice Pius Langa
Minister Jeff Radebe: Speech by Minister of Justice and Constitutional Development Jeff Radebe on the occasion of the memorial service of the late Chief Justice Langa
Acrhbishop Desmond Tutu tribute on the death of former chief justice langa
Law Society of South Africa Law society saddened at death of former chief justice pius langa
For more Obituaries and Tributes for the Judge Click Here
JSC interview for the CJ Position