The news that former Chief Justice Pius Langa had died was greeted with much sadness by the media community, not just for his contribution to justice and the law in South Africa, but also for his committed stance on the freedom of the press.
Two years after retiring as Chief Justice, Pius Langa took on the role of chairman of the Press Freedom Commission (PFC) at the time when the relationship between the media and government could not have been more strained.
“Without the media, equality and human dignity would diminish in this democratic state. Independence of both the media and judiciary is very important for our democracy to flourish,” he said, drawing parallels between the roles of the press and the judiciary. Langa was speaking at the 2009 commemoration of Balck Wednesday, the day on which in 1977 the apartheid government banned several newspapers and threw their editors into jail.
It wasn’t a popular stance with the governing party, the ANC. In fact, EWN’s Stephen Grootes, writing for The Media, said, “ANC spokesperson Jackson Mthembu was at his best when he said at the launch of the Press Council’s commission to investigate media regulation: ‘If you get a group of eminent people to investigate media control with specific reference to your favoured mechanisms, they will be nothing more than the playboys of Sanef and PMSA (Print Media South Africa).
“The ‘playboys’ he was referring to include former Chief Justice Pius Langa and Archbishop Thabo Mokgoba.”
Ingrid Louw, CEO of Print and Digital Media SA, said it was with “profound sadness that Print and Digital Media South Africa (PDMSA) learnt of the passing of the former Chief Justice, Pius Langa”.
Louw said Langa’s involvement in the PFC came at a time when “compelling change in the regulatory environment of the South African print media made an indelible impact”.
“He was a struggle veteran, a zealous human rights activist and a dedicated servant of this country. We shared a view that the media must remain the custodians of truth and that its freedom must be protected. His passing is a great loss to this country and we would like to convey our sincerest condolences to his family,” said Louw.
Peta Krost Maunder, in a wide-ranging interview with Langa in the January 2012 issue of The Media magazine, asked him why an esteemed veteran of this country would lend his name and reputation to a project such as the Press Freedom Commission.
“Perhaps I like taking on difficult things,” he said. “In fact, it is a challenge that stems from my deep interest in freedom of expression and the press. People need to talk and express themselves, sharing their thoughts and beliefs. But this must be balanced by reasonable boundaries and limitations based on human rights and dignity.”
Langa told Krost Maunder he had always strived for a world where people’s dignity was protected. “In fact the right to dignity was my bread and butter for a long time,” he says. “Now, there is a situation where there is a threat to certain of these freedoms and it behoves us all to protect them with all we have.”
He said he wanted to see if he could “shed light on this situation.” He explained he had interacted with media during his years on the bench and that he had spoken at many media conferences. He even had a South African National Editors’ Forum t-shirt he liked to wear, he told Krost Maunder.
“I have always been interested in how people are represented in the media and I often imagine myself on the front page and consider how I would feel. I debate this with myself and colleagues,” he said. “All of this just shows how essential limits are for the media but government shouldn’t use this as an excuse to whittle down freedom of expression.”
Langa was proud of the work of the PFC, and excited about what it set out to achieve. Government, he said, has its hands full with issues of service delivery, which meant that civil society should find solutions where it could.
“We must claim our right,” he said. “The constitution talks about freedom of expression and the media. If the press is shut down, there will be a great silence and we will not know what is happening in our own country. We need to take this on to exercise our freedom to express ourselves and protest. For me this is very important. When you have a free citizenry, even government gets nervous in trying to get away with things. This is essential for a democracy.”
At the same time, Langa stressed the media was by no means perfect. “There are horrible mistakes. I have never engaged in fisticuffs with the media but I think it needs to be watched with a careful eye. That is why media needs to discipline itself and there needs to be mechanisms employed to ensure it stays on the straight and narrow,” he told Krost Maunder.
Members of the media have reacted with sadness. Mathatha Tsedu, former editor of the Sunday Times and chairman of Sanef, told eNCA Langa’s loss would be felt across South Africa. He said he was “shocked’ when Mandla Langa, the former Chief Justice’s brother, called him with the news.
“I had seen him in hospital throughout the weeks he was admitted in hospital,” Tsedu said. “It is truly a loss to South Africa. He was an amazing man. He was very thorough and but always humble in his work. He always looked for the lighter side while also dealing with the seriousness of the issue.”
City Press editor, Ferial Haffajee, said on Twitter Pius Langa’s “final gift to us was the Press Freedom Commission report which substantially beefed up both media regulation and media freedom”. She said “when contemplating the exit of our grand generation – I wonder, is the next layer up to the task? #RIP fine Sir.”
Outgoing Mail&Guardian editor Nic Dawes said, “Encounters with Pius Langa through journalism, litigation and press council reform were among the great privileges of my life. A deep loss.”
The Afropolitan Magazine sent its condolences to his family. “He will forever be remembered for his ceaseless service to the country. May he rest in peace.”
Pippa Green said South Africa has lost “a fine jurist, democrat, freedom fighter and human being in Pius Langa. What a privilege to have known him and his work.”
In this video from SABC Digital, Mathatha Tsedu pays tribute to Pius Langa.