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

Photogallery South Africa Bans Travelers From Ebola-stricken Countries

South Africans returning from affected West African countries will be thoroughly screened, required to fill out medical questionnaire, health minister says More

Multimedia UN Launches ‘Biggest Aid Operation in 30 Years’ in Iraq

Move aims to help thousands of Iraqi religious minorities who fled their homes as Kurdish, Iraqi government forces battle Sunni insurgents More

Video African Media Tries to Educate Public About Ebola

IT specialists, together with radio and TV reporters, are battling misinformation and prejudice about disease 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.
Gaza Conflict, Hamas Popularity Challenge Abbasi
X
Scott Stearns
August 21, 2014 9:20 PM
The Palestinian unity government of Mahmoud Abbas has failed to convince Hamas to agree to Egyptian-negotiated terms with Israel on a Gaza cease-fire. VOA State Department Correspondent Scott Stearns reports on what the Gaza conflict means for President Abbas, with whom U.S. officials have worked for years on a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Video

Video Gaza Conflict, Hamas Popularity Challenge Abbas

The Palestinian unity government of Mahmoud Abbas has failed to convince Hamas to agree to Egyptian-negotiated terms with Israel on a Gaza cease-fire. VOA State Department Correspondent Scott Stearns reports on what the Gaza conflict means for President Abbas, with whom U.S. officials have worked for years on a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Video

Video Nigeria's 'Nollywood' Movie Industry Rolls in High Gear

Twenty years after its birth in a video shop in Lagos, Nigeria's "Nollywood" is one of the most prolific film industries on earth. Despite low budgets and whirlwind production schedules, Nigerian films are wildly popular in Africa and industry professionals say they hope, in the future, their films will be as great in quality as they are in quantity. Heather Murdock has more for VOA from Lagos.
Video

Video UN Launches 'Biggest Aid Operation in 30 Years' in Iraq

The United Nations has launched what it describes as one of the biggest aid operations in 30 years in northern Iraq, as hundreds of thousands of refugees flee the extremist Sunni militant group calling itself the Islamic State. As Kurdish and Iraqi forces battle the Sunni insurgents, the fighting has forced more people to flee their homes. Kurdish authorities say the international community must act now to avert a humanitarian catastrophe. Henry Ridgwell reports for VOA from London.
Video

Video Cambodian American Hip Hop Artist Sings of Personal Struggles

A growing underground movement of Cambodian American hip hop artists is rapping about the struggles of living in urban America. Most, if not all of them, are refugees or children of refugees who came to the United States from Cambodia to escape the Khmer Rouge genocide of the 1970s. Through their music, the artists hope to give voice to immigrants who have been struggling quietly for years. Elizabeth Lee reports from Long Beach, California.
Video

Video African Media Tries to Educate Public About Ebola

While the Ebola epidemic continues to claim lives in West Africa, information technology specialists, together with radio and TV reporters, are battling misinformation and prejudice about the disease - using social media to educate the public about the deadly virus. VOA’s George Putic has more.
Video

Video Ferguson Calls for Justice as Anger, Violence Grips Community

Violence, anger and frustration continue to grip the small St. Louis suburb of Ferguson, Missouri. Protests broke out after a white police officer fatally shot an unarmed black teenager on August 9. The case has sparked outrage around the nation and prompted the White House to send U.S. Attorney Eric Holder to the small community of just over 20,000 people. VOA’s Mary Alice Salinas has more from Ferguson.
Video

Video Beheading Of US Journalist Breeds Outrage

U.S. and British authorities have launched an investigation into an Islamic State video showing the beheading of kidnapped American journalist James Foley by a militant with a British accent. The extremist group, which posted the video on the Internet Tuesday, said the murder was revenge for U.S. airstrikes on militant positions in Iraq - and has threatened to execute another American journalist it is holding. Henry Ridgwell has more from London.
Video

Video Family Robots - The Next Big Thing?

Robots that can help us with daily chores like cooking and cleaning are a long way off, but automatons that serve as family companions may be much closer. Researchers in the United States, France, Japan and other countries are racing to build robots that can entertain and perform some simpler tasks for us. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video In Ukraine, Fear and Distrust Remain Where Fighting has Stopped

As the Ukrainian military reclaims control of eastern cities from pro-Russian separatists, residents are getting a chance to rebuild their lives. VOA's Gabe Joselow reports from the town of Kramatorsk in Donetsk province, where a sense of fear is still in the air, and distrust of the government in Kyiv still runs deep.
Video

Video Five Patients Given Experimental Ebola Drug Said to Be Improving

The World Health Organization has approved the use of experimental treatments for Ebola patients in West Africa. The Ebola outbreak there is unprecedented, the disease deadly. The number of people who have died from Ebola has surpassed 1,200. VOA's Carol Pearson reports on the ethical considerations of allowing experimental drugs to be used.
Video

Video China Targets Overseas Assets of Corrupt Officials

As China presses forward with its anti-graft effort, authorities are targeting corrupt officials who have sent family members and assets overseas. The efforts have stirred up a debate at home on exactly how many officials take that route and how likely it is they will be caught. Rebecca Valli has this report.
Video

Video Leading The Fight Against Islamic State, Kurds Question Iraqi Future

Western countries including the United States have begun arming the Kurdish Peshmerga forces in northern Iraq to aid their battle against extremist Sunni militants from the Islamic State. But there are concerns that a heavily-armed Kurdistan Regional Government, or KRG, might seek to declare independence and cause the break-up of the Iraqi state. As Henry Ridgwell reports from London, the KRG says it will only seek greater autonomy from Baghdad.
Video

Video In Rural Kenya, Pressure Builds Against Female Circumcision

In some Kenyan communities, female genital mutilation remains a rite of passage. But activists are pushing back, with education for girls and with threats of punishment those who perform the circumcision. Mohammed Yusuf looks at the practice in the rural eastern community of Tharaka-Nithi.

AppleAndroid