Saturday, 13 September 2014


N.B: This case has the potential of either making the Judge the most hated or the most loved, either way, it is trite that she is already swimming in controversial waters, albeit, res ipsa the case, with  due respect.

AFP/Pool/AFP - Judge Thokozile Masipa reads her verdict as Paralympic athlete Oscar Pistorius (unseen) sits in the dock during his murder trial at the High Court in Pretoria, on September 11, 2014

The fate of Oscar Pistorius was in the palm of one Thokozile Masipa, a woman who grew up in poverty but rose to become only the second black female to be appointed a judge in South Africa.

From day one of the trial, the irony of this elderly black woman standing in judgement over a rich, privileged young white man cannot have been lost in a country with a racial history like South Africa.

The 66-year-old grew up under the apartheid system in Soweto - the most well-known disadvantaged township of them all at the time.

She would have had to obtain permission from her white employers to travel to certain areas. She would have had to show her passbook when asked to by the police, which would have been often.

She would have been confined to all-black schools with deliberately limited opportunities and she would not have been allowed to vote.

Judge Masipa would have been 29 years old when a peaceful march by thousands of students in Soweto was broken up after police fired tear gas and live bullets. The Soweto uprisings as they became known led to similar protests across South Africa.

These events would have shaped Thokozile Matilda Masipa, who was the eldest of 10 siblings.

She already had two main careers and had two young children by the time she started studying law in her forties - achievements which would be considered exceptional and remarkable for a white woman in South Africa (or anywhere), but were utterly unheard of for a black woman then.

Although she worked at a string of odd jobs beforehand, including as a nursing assistant and a tea lady, she sought largely vocational careers where her friends say she hoped to change the unequal South African landscape she was born into.

She became first a social worker and then a newspaper reporter, at one stage working as a crime reporter. It was a tough time to be a journalist.

Once she spent a night in the cells having been arrested for protesting at the unfair detention of some of her male journalist colleagues.

During her time as women's editor of The Post, she broke with tradition and wrote about female empowerment and the victims of police brutality rather than cooking recipes and fashion.

It seems she has been breaking with tradition ever since.

She graduated from law school in 1990, the same year that Nelson Mandela was freed from prison and eight years later became only the second black woman judge appointed to the High Court.

The woman known as "Tilly" to her longtime friends is known to be a quiet, diligent, conscientious, reserved person.

Her boss for 14 years is the former Judge President, Bernard Ngoepe, who remembers her being quick to help, uncomplaining and absolutely passionate about justice.

He was part of the process which saw her appointed judge.

He said: "I felt her past experiences in social work and journalism meant she had a certain empathy, a real feeling for the people she was dealing with. I liked that in her."

And what about being at the centre of South African legal history?

The Oscar Pistorius trial is the first to be broadcast live in South Africa - and around the world.

Mr Ngoepe said: "I rang and asked her whether I should do this interview with you.

"And you know what she said? She said it's neither here nor there. She said she hasn't read any of the newspapers or followed events on the television during this trial so it's neither here nor there.

"I don't think it's made any difference to her that it's been broadcast live."

In one rare interview a few years ago, Judge Masipa admitted her background affected the way she viewed the mainly poor, mainly young men who came before her in court.

She said: "I understand them because they are from the same place I come from. I wouldn't say I am too lenient but I am more understanding."

Certainly judging from at least one of her decisions, she is anything but lenient. She once sentenced a serial rapist to 252 years in jail for leaving his victims traumatised for life.

But her views on the six-month-long Pistorius murder trial were difficult to decipher.

She has said little, intervened only when absolutely necessary and astonished many of the watching media by her ability to maintain a poker face through some of the most dramatic moments of the 41 court days.

She has shown she is no pushover - admonishing the media, the public, the two advocates and publicly humiliating the defence's legal assistant when his mobile phone inadvertently went off.

"He apologises, m'lady," defence lawyer Barry Roux said.

"Well he can stand up and apologise himself," retorted the indomitable Judge Masipa. And he did.

Over the two days, the inscrutable m'lady tooks us through her thinking, her assessments, who she believed and who she doubted - and at the end of that, she conclude Oscar Pistorius was guilty of culpable homicide after he shot his girlfriend four times through the toilet door. Yahoo News.

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