Humility, dissent and community: Exploring Chief Justice Langa’s political and judicial philosophy
Authors David Bilchitz
Affiliations: Professor of Law, University of Johannesburg; Director of the South African Institute for Advanced Constitutional, Public, Human Rights and International Law
Source: Acta Juridica, 2015, p. 88 – 119
This paper explores key features of Justice Langa’s political and judicial philosophy through examining the important value he placed on disagreement and dissent. I begin by considering the controversy which erupted surrounding the comments made by the President of South Africa, Jacob Zuma about the practice of judicial dissent. Underlying these comments are specific assumptions concerning the law, adjudication and, in particular, the nature of a political community. I seek to draw from the writings of Justice Langa concerning dissent and constitutional democracy more generally for responses to these comments, which in turn outline a political community and the judiciary’s role within it that has deep roots in African philosophy. Langa emphasised the need for humility in the face of human fallibility: in light of this, he argued for the importance of respecting and preserving diverse voices in law and society that would be in a continuing conversation over time about how to improve society. I then consider some of the key themes on which Justice Langa felt impelled to write dissenting judgments. These include an emphasis on the history of South Africa, substantive equality, the regulation of private power and the accountability and fairness of public power. This analysis helps us to understand in more detail the kind of polity Langa believed we should be forming. South Africa should be a community that provides a space for diverse individual identities to flourish. Dissent will be a vital part of such a society, being recognised not as a problem but as part of the richness of our diversity which emphasises the need for openness and flexibility in our joint quest — across many conversations — to attain a more just society.