Pius Langa

When he was 14, Honorable Pius NkonzoLanga was told that his parents could not afford for him to continue his education. He has described himself as "distraught" by the news. But clearly he was not defeated. Through perseverance, private study and what he calls "miracles" of scholarship aid, the South African eventually earned his law degree, established himself as a respected advocate, and now serves as the Deputy Chief Justice on the Constitutional Court of South Africa.

In his young life he was exposed to the hardships of the pass laws and the "influx control" regulations. His experience with the inner workings of the legal system came in the 1960s when he worked as an interpreter/messenger for the Department of Justice. It gave him a close-up view of the inequities of a system that sanctioned apartheid and had little regard for the human rights of the majority population.

He received his Bachelor of Laws (LLB) in 1976 at the University of South Africa and was admitted as an Advocate of the Supreme Court in 1977. He participated in many political trials, representing trade unions, civic bodies and many individuals accused of opposing apartheid.

Justice Langa's community participation includes involvement in a large number of legal, political and educational organizations and causes. He was a member of the Democratic Lawyers Association and a founding member and president of the National Association of Democratic Lawyers; served on the Community Legal Services Unit, the Center for Socio-legal Studies at the University of Natal and the South African Legal Defence Fund; was a trustee of the Clermont Women's Organisation and of the Fundani Trust; was chairman of the Phambili School Interim Committee, among others. Both as an advocate and as a judge, he has helped to establish his country's Constitution as a model for modern democratic societies. His influence stretches outside South Africa. In recent years, he has shared his expertise and experience in a number countries struggling with regime change and new democracies, including Sri Lanka, Zimbabwe, Rwanda, the Fiji Islands and Tanzania.

Justice Langa eloquently articulated his belief in democratic principles and his respect for justice in a 1995 opinion ruling against capital punishment.

"The test of our commitment to a culture of rights lies in our ability to respect the rights not only of the weakest, but also of the worst among us," he wrote. "The Constitution constrains society to express its condemnation and its justifiable anger in a manner which preserves society's own morality."

Further, he wrote, "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. . . . A culture of respect for human life and dignity, based on the values reflected in the Constitution, has to be engendered, and the State must take the lead. In acting out this role, the State not only preaches respect for the law and that the killing must stop, but it demonstrates in the best way possible, by example, society's own regard for human life and dignity by refusing to destroy that of the criminal. 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 as well."

Justice Langa serves as Chancellor of the University of Natal and for many years has been a Distinguished Visiting Professor at the Southern Methodist University School of Law in Dallas, Texas. Three universities have bestowed on him honorary Doctorate of Law degrees.

Pius Langa and his wife, Thandekile, have five children.