Judge Masipa's long journey to preside over Pistorius trial

  • 10 September 2014
  • From the section Africa
Judge Thokosile Masipa
Image caption Judge Masipa has shown a meticulous attention to detail and fairness

From her perch overlooking Courtroom GD, where Oscar Pistorius has been on trial since March, Judge Thokozile Masipa has often seemed a distant, silent, diminutive figure - peering down at the drama unfolding before her from behind thick glasses, her mouth only rarely curling into an unexpectedly warm smile.

From the beginning, her (largely male) critics have been quick to interpret her detachment as a sign that she's either out of her depth, or overly intimidated by the television cameras broadcasting her every gesture to a global audience.

"The judge is clearly inhibited [by the cameras] in this case, as regards interventions," concluded the prominent South African lawyer, Jeremy Gauntlett.

And yet, as this long trial has snaked towards its conclusion, Judge Masipa's quiet demeanour - in stark contrast to the tears, theatrics and occasional snarls from the white males who have dominated the courtroom floor - has earned her growing respect and admiration.

'Element of poise'

Her interventions may have been rare - but each has revealed a meticulous attention to detail and fairness, and obvious desire to give prosecution and defence an exhaustive opportunity to present their cases.

Image caption Oscar Pistorius might have to wait for more than a day to hear his verdict
Image caption The judge has proved that she is not out of her depth in what has often been a highly charged courtroom

"I feel very proud. I like her composure. She's centred. I think it's very important for the judge to somehow bring an element of poise into the proceedings," said Albie Sachs, a former Constitutional Court judge and crucial figure in South Africa's struggle to end white-minority rule.

She is part of a generation of people who "struggled under apartheid", and who realised that "your life is not simply about career and ambition, but making your country a better one", said Justice Sachs.

Thokozile Matilda Masipa, 66, has come a long way from her humble origins in a black township outside Johannesburg where she worked as a clerk, a messenger and a tea girl.

"I had a real experience of what life was like when you were black and you were not educated. I'd seen these white... girls working on the offices, typing, doing all kinds of things," she said.

At one point she felt further education was worthless - that she would never break through the racial barriers.

But her mother urged her on, and she went to university, became a journalist, was briefly imprisoned in the struggle against apartheid, and then decided to study law, as South Africa was beginning its slow journey towards democracy.

Image caption Reeva Steenkamp (left) was shot dead by her boyfriend Oscar Pistorius on Valentine's Day 2013

"She was a pupil of mine in 1991. She passed with flying colours. She was very, very hard working and diligent - a very private, decent person who takes her work seriously," said lawyer Mannie Witz.

Thokozile Masipa became a judge in 1998 - the second black woman in the country's history to reach that position.

"Peers respect her. She gives everybody a fair hearing. She's not intrusive, but can be firm when she needs to be," said Mr Witz.

Media captionThe life and times of Oscar Pistorius in 60 seconds

Since the Pistorius trial began, people have scrutinised her earlier judgments, looking for clues.

In 2009 she sentenced a policeman to life in jail for killing his ex-wife. "No-one is above the law. You deserve to go to jail for life because you are not a protector. You are a killer," she said.

Last year she sentenced a man to 252 years in prison for raping three women in "the sanctity of their own homes where they thought they were safe".

But in courtroom GD, Judge Masipa has remained an inscrutable figure, and Oscar Pistorius is unlikely to have any real sense of his fate until she has finished reading every page of a verdict that could take more than a day to get through.

Image caption Judge Masipa recently visited a school in the small township she grew up in outside Johannesburg

As for her own future, and that of South Africa, Judge Masipa offers this:

"I think we're going somewhere. We still have a long way to go, obviously, but... we're making a difference. It's a tough place to be, because for a long time it was only men who sat here.

"And in our culture it's even tougher because some men are just not used to seeing women giving orders. So it's tough, but, you know, one gets used to it."

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