Single parents don’t need anonymous generosity but public respect

 

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article titled “Single parents don’t need anonymous generosity but public respect” was written by Suzanne Moore, for theguardian.com on Monday 26th January 2015 11.51 UTC

Are random acts of kindness so rare that they are actual news? Apparently so. A young woman Samantha Welch was on a long train journey with her three year-old son. She did her best to entertain him, playing games with him and letting him listen to music. Eventually he fell asleep and because the train was full, she pulled him on to her lap so that she could offer his seat to other people.

Anyone who has travelled with a child will be familiar with this. Trains and boats and planes. Or actually buses. You try your best to keep the child quiet and happy and it’s exhausting. There are times when they become fractious, whatever you do. There are tantrums that not even a bag of Wotsits can soothe. There are stairs in most stations where people rush by as you bump up a buggy with a child and a heavy bag.

There are times when you need to leave your luggage to take a child to the loo or when a flight attendant will dump a tray of food on top of you when you have a toddler on your knee.

Travelling with a small child can be hard work, work that single parents do all the time. If you are not in that stage of life, it’s easier not to notice: move away from wailing infants and put your headphones in.

One man, however, did notice that this young woman in front of him was doing her best. As he left the train he tapped Samantha on the shoulder and said she had dropped something . It was a note that said:

“Have a drink on me. You are a credit to your generation, polite and teaching the little boy good manners. Man on train at table with glasses and hat. Have a lovely evening.
“PS I have a daughter your age, someone did the same for her once. Hope when she has children she is as good a mother as you.”

There was a fiver wrapped inside it.

Letter
The letter Samantha Welch received. Photograph: Ken McKay/ITV/Rex

The Daily Mail reported this story and wants to find this “generous stranger”. Kindness is clearly no longer its own reward. The subtext to this sweetness, though, is that of a decent man acknowledging a good young mother. Who knew such a thing existed? Samantha said: “People look at you and judge you every day when you’re a single mum but getting that note made me feel special and proud. That might sound silly, but all I’m trying to do is make a better life for my son.”

That does not sound silly at all. It makes perfect sense. Where, pray, does the assumption that single mothers do not want the best for their children come from?

Is it only the province of perfect couples to teach their children basic manners or how to behave in public? Actually, as a single parent, it has always been to my advantage to make my children as portable as possible.

But I am happy that this young women’s efforts were recognised. What we need though is not simply anonymous generosity but public respect. This has long been in short supply from the top down as single mothers are spoken of as failures, burdens, and responsible for so many societal ills. Besides dropping us a fiver and helping us with our bags, the ultimate kindness would be to relieve us of the baggage of nasty and negative preconceptions. We mostly try to get it right most of the time.

It’s nice that at least one person saw that.

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Thokozile Masipa: the world awaits her verdict on Oscar Pistorius

 

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article titled “Thokozile Masipa: the world awaits her verdict on Oscar Pistorius” was written by Nastasya Tay, for The Observer on Saturday 9th August 2014 23.05 UTC

Once a tea girl, a nursing assistant and a journalist imprisoned for her beliefs, the woman who will pass judgment on Oscar Pistorius‘s fate has retired to consider her verdict. For 41 days, Judge Thokozile Masipa has presided over proceedings in Courtroom GD: the accused’s tears, verbal scraps between the two white Afrikaans attorneys trying to convince her of their arguments, calling everyone to quiet order. Everyone calls her “m’lady”.

Stern, but inscrutable, the 66-year-old has listened to reams of evidence, her head resting on an arthritic hand. Now she must decide if she believes the Paralympian shot and killed his girlfriend in a case of mistaken identity on Valentine’s morning last year of if, as the prosecution asserts, he’s guilty of premeditated murder. She will deliver her judgment on 11 September.

However, despite having become a recognisable figure in her red robe on the world’s television screens, Judge Masipa remains an intensely private woman. Suzette Naude, her soft-spoken court registrar, says the judge doesn’t even confide in her. “I don’t know what she thinks about the case. She hasn’t discussed any of her views with me at all,” she said. Asked about Masipa’s pronounced limp – she examined evidence in court on the supporting arm of an orderly – Naude shakes her head. “She once told me it was a broken femur, but others say it was childhood polio. No one really knows.”

The judge arrives in a Mercedes at Pretoria’s face-brick high court each morning as the winter sun is coming up, driven from her home in Midrand by her secretary because she doesn’t drive herself. By 6.30am, she is at her desk, poring over the day’s documents, more than two hours before any other judge.

Friends describe her as religious, health conscious and hard working. “Once you come in here and become a permanent judge, you begin to see that you spend most of your life here, instead of home,” Masipa once said.

Usually based in the Johannesburg high court, which has the highest case burden in the country, she jokes that even her four grandchildren need to make appointments to see her. Her husband, a tax consultant, does the cooking.

Susan Abro, a senior attorney who served with Masipa on South Africa’s electoral court for six years, says the judge is “very clever, very professional”, but, above all, warm and modest. “She comes from a human rights background, so that’s the point – you must allow people to feel like they’ve had their day in court, to feel as if they’ve been heard,” she told the Observer.

“She’s not one of the ones who makes a big splash about themselves, makes judgments so they’ll be reported,” she added. “And she has a wry sense of humour.”

Born on 16 October 1947, Masipa was the first of 10 children, and one of only three surviving – five died in childhood; another brother was stabbed to death in his 20s.

She grew up on a two-bedroom house in Orlando East, then a poor part of Soweto, sleeping in the dining room, or under the kitchen table if they had visitors. She’d keep a look out for the police while her grandmother brewed beer in the yard. Now, her childhood home is a creche for poor children, set up by her late mother. She helps pay the bills and also finances a nearby project that her sister runs for unemployed women.

Moving between schools in Soweto, the Alexandra township outside Johannesburg and Swaziland, she worked hard. “From a very young age, I wasn’t a great socialiser; I would be buried in my books,” she said in a 2008 interview for Courting Justice, a documentary about South African female judges. She became a social worker, inspired by her mother, who was a teacher.

Wanting to go to university, but lacking the money, Masipa spent years grappling with resentment, working as a clerk, then a messenger, then a tea girl, watching young white girls with high school diplomas doing the jobs she wanted. Eventually, she found her way to university, graduating with a BA in social work in 1974. The list of “funny” jobs continued, until she applied for a junior reporter’s position at the World newspaper, where she worked as a crime reporter until it was banned in 1977. Those were the days of growing unrest in Soweto: the death of 13-year-old Hector Pieterson in 1976; the assassination of activist Steve Biko in 1977; the riots.

As the women’s section editor at the Post where she moved, Masipa wrote about schools, education, the quality of textbooks, the conditions of labour for domestic workers. The promotion was a big step up. “No mean feat,” fellow journalist Pearl Luthuli recalled. “That position was for a white woman.”

“Sometimes the police would call up and say you are not supposed to write this and that. But Tilly [short for her European name Matilda] would stand her ground. She’s a really tough cookie,” former colleague Nomavenda Mathiane said of Masipa’s work.

Her strength found its way to Johannesburg’s streets when she was 29, when she marched with other female journalists to protest at the detention of several of their black male editors at the Post and demand press freedoms. She was arrested and thrown into a filthy jail cell with four of her colleagues; they used the newspapers they were carrying as bed linen and defied their white warden, who tried to force them to clean the excrement of previous prisoners.

It took Masipa 10 years to complete her law degree at the University of South Africa, while working as a full-time journalist, wife and mother. She graduated in 1990, after Nelson Mandela had just been released from prison. Even then, no one would take her on as an attorney, so she did her pupillage at the Johannesburg bar. Female lawyers were still few and far between. Masipa recalls answering her phone to rivals, who expected her to be a man.

The announcement of her appointment as the second black woman in South African history to the bench in 1998 was accompanied by a note of her hobbies: dancing, gardening, yoga. “It was part of a breakthrough. In a sense, she is a pioneer,” said Albie Sachs, a former constitutional court justice. Masipa herself jokes that she is probably the “youngest” ever appointed to the high court, after only seven years at the bar, a part of South Africa’s racial and political transformation.

But black female judges are still a rarity. Even though the population is 80% black, only 44% of superior court judges are. And out of the country’s 239 judges, only 76 are women.

On her journey to the bench, Masipa dropped Matilda in favour of Thokozile, which, in Zulu, means “happy.” Now, Masipa says, she feels the bench has more credibility in its diversity, but it also comes with specific challenges.

“Sometimes it’s not that easy; sometimes the woman comes before your court and she’s saying to herself, ‘Well, she’s black, she’s a woman, she must understand this.’ But you still have to look at what the law says,” she said.

She has admitted that her township background and disadvantaged childhood have an impact on her judgments, allowing her to identify with the people in the dock before her, especially young criminals, who she feels should be given an opportunity for rehabilitation.

On one occasion, hearing from an assessor of a young man moving with “the wrong crowd”, Masipa called him into her office and told him to go back to school. He did. Her most eminent judgments have followed a theme: protect the vulnerable. In May last year, Masipa sentenced a man who raped three women during the course of house robberies to 252 years in prison, condemning him for attacking and raping the victims “in the sanctity of their own homes where they thought they were safe”.

In 2009, Masipa handed down a life sentence to a policeman, who shot and killed his former wife after a row over their divorce settlement, telling him: “No one is above the law. You deserve to go to jail for life because you are not a protector. You are a killer.”

In 2009, she told the city of Johannesburg that it had failed to fulfil its constitutional obligations by not providing accommodation for squatters who were threatened with eviction.

The Department of Justice has been at pains to say Masipa’s assignment to Pistorius’s murder trial was a procedural one, but many South Africans also regard it is as a significant and welcome statement about the changing nature of the country’s justice system.

“It is a tough place to be, because for a long time it was only men who sat here,” Masipa once said. “And in our culture it’s even tougher, because some men are just not used to seeing women giving orders. But one gets used to it. It’s not you as a woman who’s there – it’s the position that you fill. So you just get on with it.”Comments will not be opened for legal reasons

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