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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