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Photo/who’swho South Africa Thokozile Matilda Masipa is a former social worker turned journalist turned lawyer turned superior court judge. She’s “eloquent” and highly respected by her peers, but perpetrators should tread lightly.

Photo/who’swho South Africa
Thokozile Matilda Masipa is a former social worker turned journalist turned lawyer turned superior court judge. She’s “eloquent” and highly respected by her peers, but perpetrators should tread lightly.

Judge Thokozile Matilda Masipa

The World Awaits Her Verdict

Oscar Pistorius murder trial: The woman who already knows if the Paralympian is guilty – or not guilty

The courtroom drama that has riveted the world now rests in the hands of Judge Thokozile Matilda Masipa, a quiet, stern 66-year-old black woman who has steadfastly avoided the limelight even as she rose from a poor township to the nation’s High Court.

A former newspaper reporter, she was once arrested during a protest and ordered by her white jailers to clean her cell’s filthy toilet. She began studying law at the height of apartheid and became a lawyer only in her 40s. “Whoever thought that one day a black woman would be standing judge over a white boy?” said Nomavenda Mathiane, 68, a former newspaper colleague.

Since the trial began in March, Judge Masipa has sat at the intersection of two powerful problems in South Africa: violence against women and racial tensions. She has listened to Mr. Pistorius’s lawyers knit together a defense that rests in part on white South Africans’ deep-rooted fear of black men invading their homes. She has sometimes chided the white men in her courtroom, who address her with the honorific “My Lady” — still an extraordinary scene a generation after the end of apartheid.

“One time they were all shouting at each other, and it was getting worse and worse,” said Margie Orford, a novelist who has written about the trial. “She called them over, and they stood before her like naughty schoolboys and said, ‘We’re sorry, My Lady.’ It was a beautiful little apartheid reversal going on there.”

A sensational trial that Judge Masipa has steered — skillfully, experts say — despite the glare of live television and social media, as well as the dramatic courtroom behavior of Mr. Pistorius and the prosecutor, Gerrie Nel. Because South Africa does not have a jury system, Mr. Pistorius’s fate will rest with Judge Masipa, who is being advised by two associates.

Judge Masipa, known for meting out stiff sentences in previous cases of violence against women, has revealed little of her thinking in this trial, mostly listening quietly with her hands folded. An intensely private person, Judge Masipa has given few interviews over the years. But in 2003, when she was being considered for a seat on the Constitutional Court, the nation’s highest court, she argued that her race, gender and disadvantaged upbringing would be assets.

“I can make a difference,” she told South Africa’s chief justice, according to a transcript.

In the same, ultimately unsuccessful interview, she recalled how she grew up in Soweto, the black township near here, in a two-room house where she shared one room with her brothers and sisters. “A lot of young children didn’t have role models,” Judge Masipa said in “Courting Justice,” a 2010 documentary about female judges in South Africa.

As a black female judge, she remains a rarity. In a country where blacks make up 80 percent of the population, they account for 44 percent of superior court judges. Women total 33 percent; black women, 15 percent.

After a brief career as a social worker, Judge Masipa became a reporter at The Post, where she eventually edited a weekly women’s section, former colleagues said. It was a period of profound change during which blacks increasingly challenged the apartheid system, leading to a series of protests in Soweto in 1976.

The authorities began cracking down, forcing publishers to close newspapers and reopen them under different names. One day in 1977, after their male editors were arrested, Judge Masipa, by then married with two sons, and four other female reporters organized a demonstration in downtown Johannesburg. The women were arrested and spent one night in jail, recalled one, Pearl Luthuli, now 60. Inside their cell, they used the newspapers they were carrying as sheets and blankets. The next morning, the white wardens ordered them to clean their cell before releasing them for a court appearance. “There was a toilet in the corner there that I cannot bear to think about even up to today,” Ms. Luthuli said. “The next day, we had not used the toilet, but they expected us to clean it. We refused.” The wardens eventually relented, she said.

Ms. Masipa was already moving on. She began using her Zulu name, Thokozile, dropping Matilda, or Tilly, as everyone called her. And while her peers attended social gatherings, she began studying law, earning a degree from the University of South Africa in 1990, four years before the end of apartheid. She became an advocate a year later, and, in 1998, became the second black woman to be appointed to the High Court.

Judge Masipa has built a strong track record, handling complex cases and adroitly navigating around a legal technicality in one ruling to deliver a sentence of 252 years to a serial rapist, said James Grant, a professor of criminal law at the University of Witwatersrand.

Judge Masipa’s former newspaper colleagues say that fairness has always been one of her most important traits. “When I heard that Tilly was going to be the judge, the first thought that came to my mind was that they could not have chosen a better person,” “If, for example, I feel deep anger about apartheid, Judge Masipa has always been a person with an even keel. So I have no doubt in my mind that it is in good hands, whether it’s Oscar or his parents, or Reeva or her parents, or South Africa as a whole.”

 

The New York Times


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