Nurtured in the fires of the injustice of Apartheid, Pius Langa was to become the Chief Justice of the Constitutional Court of South Africa.
The architects of the new Constitutional Court Building after the end of Apartheid in South Africa were adamant: “The pillars in the foyer should slant like fallen trees in a clearing in a forest. Like Justice itself, the Foyer is a space somewhere between an enclosure and a clearing, an empty and an occupied volume, a clearly defined space and a limitless, edgeless, ethereal one.” The then Deputy Chief Justice, Pius Langa was alarmed at seeing the angle of the pillars. Was it appropriate for a court? They became the Pius Pillars, a metaphor where he came to see delight in disorder. Rather than generating meaning through form, it expresses meaning in its void. Its delicacy is expressed on its internal surfaces rather like the hollow mass of the Hagia Sophia.
He died quietly this week amidst all the fanfare around Mandela’s state of health: The passing of one of those great souls who leave barely a perceptible trace because it is so pure. Over a decade ago he thanked the Gruber Foundation for its prestigious annual prize for Justice by opening with: “Twinkle, twinkle, little star….” He explained that as a six-year-old, Zulu child, bare-foot and in short pants, he would be placed by his parents on a box to repeat the poem to admiring visitors. He recalled the hope and idealism of the little boy.
In his submission to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission he gave a searing account of what it was like growing up black under Apartheid. Pius Langa was a judge with an admirably radical view of the notion of transformative constitutionalism to uphold the role of Justice and Mercy in shaping a society: To decide how prisoners may be treated, to what degree surveillance may intrude on the freedom of its citizens, to have information about the world we live in. It makes the difference between life based on fear and life based on an open society: The freedom to create, to get it wrong, to question, to disagree: To hold the tension between the might of the group and the desire of the individual. It is never a finished work but always under construction.
When he resigned it was left to him to inform deputy President Moseneke who was pre-eminently suited for the position of Chief Justice but ousted for political reasons by President Zuma: “I want to tell you President Zuma has decided not to appoint you as my successor.” He burst into tears – a measure of his grief at the betrayal of Justice and its implications for South Africa.
Chief Justice Langa erred on the side of compassion. He loved the thought that the law, which had long served as a weapon of division and oppression, could be fashioned into an instrument of emancipation. He upheld that equality and the repudiation of all forms of arbitrariness in public life stemmed from a commitment to a precious reservoir of hope and interdependence of all life.
His words ring true for the USA today: “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.”
He remained a humble and vigilant proponent of the rights of the marginalised, oppressed and underprivileged. It was Langa’s eloquence in the 1995 opinion ruling against capital punishment that is often remembered: “Apartheid South Africa hanged its enemies, but our new democracy cannot allow that to continue. 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.” Langa memorably wrote in the ruling how consensus for action is superior to domination: “The constitution constrains society to express its condemnation and its justifiable anger in a manner which preserves society’s own morality. These are the values of a more mature society, which relies on moral persuasion rather than force, on example rather than coercion.”
A moral order is not just a nice idea but intrinsic to our true nature. It is not cast in stone but must be revisited over and over. And it is up to each one of us personally. It is individual conscience that is the leading edge of consciousness. There is a dynamic at work, a Holy Spirit reflective of the integrity of the individual and the refinement of human consciousness both as merciful love and the demand for justice.
About 4000 years ago Abraham made a plea bargain with God for the people of Sodom and Gemorah: If there are only 50 people who are not irredeemable will you refrain from wiping it out? OK, said God. How about 40 people? asked Abraham. OK, said God. Abraham beat him down to 10 people. By that time God had the message. Consciousness evolves. We, like Abraham are responsible and like Jesus can affirm the absolution of everyone, forever.
The small boy that grew up with the deprivation and injustice that apartheid visited upon African people has shown us that might is not right, the peoples of the earth must learn to hear the voice of the voiceless, to make space for the ‘other’ beside us. A learning to live with Pius Pillars.
The light he leaves shining ahead for all of us is the noblest of all pursuits, the liberation of humankind because therein lies the Kingdom of God.