News / Africa

Pistorius Judge Overcame Racial, Gender Barriers

Oscar Pistorius is viewed on a laptop as he sits in the dock in court in Pretoria, South Africa, March 14, 2014.
Oscar Pistorius is viewed on a laptop as he sits in the dock in court in Pretoria, South Africa, March 14, 2014.
Anita Powell
Judge Thokozile Masipa is a central figure in Oscar Pistorius' murder trial. She talks softly, but carries a big stick.

Masipa has made a name for herself for being only the second black woman to ascend to the bench, and for then using the position to fight South Africa's scourge of domestic violence.

When South Africa’s prosecuting authority announced who would preside over the athlete's trial, local newspapers were quick to note the intriguing plot twist created by this addition to the cast of characters.

“One always hopes to think that the choice of judge won’t make any difference to the trial," said constitutional scholar Pierre de Vos, who teaches law at the University of Cape Town. "But I think the realities are that certain judges will, you know, if you’re the defense for example…you’ll be happier if a certain judge is appointed to hear the trial than others. I would suspect that Mr. Pistorius and his lawyers are not overjoyed by the choice of judge.”

Masipa is black and a woman. The prosecuting authority was quick to note that she was not chosen to lead this case for those qualities, but because she is a competent and respected judge who happened to come up on the court roster.

More relevant to this trial, she also has a record of coming down hard on cases in which men are accused of abusing or killing women.

Masipa is now also at the center of a case that has broken legal barriers by being the first South African criminal trial to be broadcast live.

However, being on the forefront is not new for Masipa. She was on the leading edge of a wave of judges and magistrates who transformed South Africa’s judiciary from a nearly all-white boys club in 1994 -- when 160 of 165 judges were white men -- to a much more representative roster today.

She joined the bench in 1998, only the second black woman to do so. Last year, the Department of Justice said the judiciary is now dominated by black male judges, 100, compared to 71 white men. Forty-nine black women are seated judges, along with 21 white women.

Journalists are not allowed to approach Masipa or her two assessors during this trial. Together, the three will decide whether to believe Pistorius’ claim that he mistook his girlfriend for an intruder when he shot her dead through a locked bathroom door or whether Reeva Steenkamp’s shooting death was murder.

Challenging journey 

Those who have met Masipa describe her as smart, humble and hardworking.

Like Pistorius, she grew up with serious obstacles in her path to success.  But while Pistorius’ tale is one of triumph over disability -- he was born without fibula bones and became the first double amputee to run in the Olympics, in 2012 -- Masipa’s is one of victory over a system that was fundamentally stacked against her.

Born in 1947, she grew up in Johannesburg’s Soweto and Alexandra townships, areas designated for blacks during the apartheid era. She was smart but struggled to find jobs as a social worker because of her race.

After foundering in odd jobs, she became a journalist in the late 1970s and rose to editor despite saying she was too shy to be an effective journalist. She began studying law at night while working a day job and caring for her two children. 

Those first years were not easy, she told a film crew that interviewed her several years ago. She began working in apartheid’s twilight years, and says her race and gender worked against her. She says legal opponents would often call and make appointments with Mr. Masipa expecting her to be a man.

In recent years, she has shown a tendency to use the bench to come down hard on South Africa’s out-of-control epidemic of domestic abuse, slapping two offenders with harsh sentences.

Courtroom demeanor

As the trial enters its third week, law Professor James Grant of the University of the Witwatersrand thinks she’s doing well so far.

“I think very well under the circumstances, given that this is, at least in respect of the media issue, this is trailblazing," Grant said. "This is a first for South Africa and she’s having to make lots of decisions on the spur of the moment. I think she’s doing relatively well.”

Masipa has not spoken much in court, and her voice is so soft that when she does, the gallery struggles to hear her.

She has had some interesting flashes of authority, including a controversial ruling banning reporters from Tweeting about sensitive testimony on Steenkamp’s postmortem exam.

She also has flexed her muscles in other ways, once reminding prosecutor Gerrie Nel, gently, that she was not to be called “ma’am,”  but instead, the rather medieval-sounding “my lady.”

But she has also shown a soft side. On the first week, a courtroom break ended without Pistorius in the dock. The courtroom was murmuring, noting that his tardiness could be a violation of his bail conditions.

He blew in a minute later, clearly flustered, and stood before Masipa, his hands clasped and head down like a naughty schoolboy. He apologized, being sure to address her as “my lady.”

She looked at him sternly, and then paused.

“It’s okay,” she said, with a grandmotherly smile and motioned for him to sit.

You May Like

Lesotho Faces New Round of Violence, Political Crisis

Brutal killing of military officer has sent former leaders back into S. Africa where they're watching anxiously as regional officials head in to try to restore peace More

Video US Diplomat Expects Adoption of Bosnian Massacre Anniversary Resolution

Samantha Power says there's broad consensus about killings in Bosnia's war, but Russia calls resolution 'divisive,' backs UN countermeasure More

UN Report Exposes Widespread Boko Haram Atrocities

Damning report graphically details pattern of vicious, widespread atrocities committed by Islamist militants More

This forum has been closed.
Comments
     
There are no comments in this forum. Be first and add one

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Olympics Construction Scars Sacred Korean Mountaini
X
July 02, 2015 4:10 AM
Environmentalists in South Korea are protesting a Winter Olympics construction project to build a ski slope through a 500-year-old protected forest. Brian Padden reports that although there is strong national support for hosting the 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Olympics, there are growing public concerns over the costs and possible ecological damage at the revered mountain.
Video

Video Olympics Construction Scars Sacred Korean Mountain

Environmentalists in South Korea are protesting a Winter Olympics construction project to build a ski slope through a 500-year-old protected forest. Brian Padden reports that although there is strong national support for hosting the 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Olympics, there are growing public concerns over the costs and possible ecological damage at the revered mountain.
Video

Video Xenophobia Victims in South Africa Flee Violence, Then Return

Many Malawians fled South Africa early this year after xenophobic attacks on African immigrants. But many quickly found life was no better at home and have returned to South Africa – often illegally and without jobs, and facing the tough task of having to start over. Lameck Masina and Anita Powell file from Johannesburg.
Video

Video Family of American Marine Calls for Release From Iranian Prison

As the crowd of journalists covering the Iran talks swells, so too do the opportunities for media coverage.  Hoping to catch the attention of high-level diplomats, the family of American-Iranian marine Amir Hekmati is in Vienna, pleading for his release from an Iranian prison after nearly 4 years.  VOA’s Heather Murdock reports from Vienna.
Video

Video UK Holds Terror Drill as MPs Mull Tunisia Response

After pledging a tough response to last Friday’s terror attack in Tunisia, which came just days before the 10th anniversary of the bomb attacks on London’s transport network, British security services are shifting their focus to overseas counter-terror operations. VOA's Henry Ridgwell has more.
Video

Video Obama on Cuba: This is What Change Looks Like

President Barack Obama says the United States will soon reopen its embassy in Cuba for the first time since 1961, ending a half-century of isolation. VOA White House correspondent Luis Ramirez reports.
Video

Video Hate Groups Spread Influence Via Internet

Hate groups of various kinds are using the Internet for propaganda and recruitment, and a Jewish human rights organization that monitors these groups, the Simon Wiesenthal Center, says their influence is growing. The messages are different, but the calls to hatred or violence are similar. VOA's Mike O’Sullivan reports.
Video

Video US Silica Sand Mining Surge Worries Illinois Residents, Businesses

Increased domestic U.S. oil and gas production, thanks to advances known as “fracking,” has created a boom for other industries supporting that extraction. Demand for silica sand, used in fracking, could triple over the next five years. In the Midwest state of Illinois, people living near the mines are worried about how increased silica sand mining will affect their businesses and their health. VOA’s Kane Farabaugh has more in this first of a series of reports.
Video

Video Blind Somali Journalist Defies Odds in Mogadishu

Despite improving security in the last few years, Somalia remains one of the most dangerous countries to be a journalist – even more so for someone who cannot see. Abdulaziz Billow has the story of journalist Abdifatah Hassan Kalgacal, who has been reporting from the Somali capital for the last decade despite being blind.
Video

Video Texas Defies Same-Sex Marriage Ruling

Texas state officials have criticized the US Supreme Court decision giving same-sex couples the right to marry nationwide. The attorney general of Texas says last week's decision did not overrule constitutional "rights of religious liberty," and therefore officials performing wedding services can refuse to perform them for same-sex couples if it is against their religious beliefs. Zlatica Hoke reports on the controversy.
Video

Video Rabbi Hits Road to Heal Jewish-Muslim Relations in France

France is on high alert after last week's terrorist attack near the city Lyon, just six months after deadly Paris shootings. The attack have added new tensions to relations between French Jews and Muslims. France’s Jewish and Muslim communities also share a common heritage, though, and as far as one French rabbi is concerned, they are destined to be friends. From the Paris suburb of La Courneuve, Lisa Bryant reports about Rabbi Michel Serfaty and his friendship bus.
Video

Video Saudi Leaks Expose ‘Checkbook Diplomacy’ In Battle With Iran

Saudi Arabia’s willingness to wield its oil money on the global diplomatic stage appears to have been laid bare, after the website WikiLeaks published tens of thousands of leaked cables from Riyadh’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs. VOA's Henry Ridgwell reports.
Video

Video In Kenya, Police Said to Shoot First, Ask Questions Later

An organization that documents torture and extrajudicial killings says Kenyan police were responsible for 1,252 shooting deaths in five cities, including Nairobi, between 2009 and 2014, representing 67 percent of all gun deaths in the areas reviewed. Gabe Joselow has more from Nairobi.

VOA Blogs