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

Next week, an ex-journalist from Soweto will deliver her verdict in the most sensational trial in recent memory. Tom Peck tells her story

Tom Peck
Thursday 11 September 2014 08:29 BST
The 66-year-old was born and raised with many siblings in a two-room house in Soweto
The 66-year-old was born and raised with many siblings in a two-room house in Soweto

Oscar Pistorius raced a cheetah once. Now he is Schrödinger’s cat. His fate is almost certainly already decided. Like the cat in the Austrian quantum physicist’s thought experiment, sealed in a poison-filled box with a 50/50 chance of survival, the once heroic sprinter exists in a simultaneous state of guilt and innocence, of freedom or incarceration. On Thursday morning, the lid will be opened, and the world will see inside.

One person, of course, has already seen, already knows. By now, Judge Thokozile Matilda Masipa will have made up her mind. Many a legal expert in South Africa and around the world still doesn’t know which way she will turn, which is just another reason why everyone is still so transfixed, both by the trial and by her.

The 66-year-old was born and raised with many siblings in a two-room house in Soweto, the historic township where the struggle against apartheid turned violent, and to where Nelson Mandela returned when he walked free from prison in 1990.

By the time she arrived – after a lengthy delay – on the trial’s opening day six months ago, the maelstrom of build-up had already made one obvious but unavoidable point a hundred thousand times over. That there, in this country whose racial issues rightly or wrongly still fascinate the world, was a black woman from the humblest of beginnings who would pass judgment on this rich, white megastar boy.

The photographers and the television cameras have framed this perfect juxtaposition for more than half a year, as she sits up there in her elevated position.

What we don’t see or wonder quite so often is what she sees, what she thinks, looking down at the circus beneath her. What she thinks when she sees the row upon row of journalists from all over the world; she was a crime reporter herself once. Or what goes through her head as she steps in to referee between two squabbling white alpha-male barristers, both at the top of their game, both far more expensively educated than she has been, as each seeks to bend the arc of truth in his own direction to its absolute limit.

When these men – around a decade her junior – were wandering out of law school with their diplomas, she was working as a clerk, or a messenger or a tea girl, getting progressively angrier about how little access to opportunity she had, about the injustice all around her.

She has, in the long months she has been sitting there, listening with her head rested on what looks to be an arthritic hand, interrupting very rarely, given us no clue as to what she thinks while she strives to arrive at what might be the truth about what happened between the athlete and his model girlfriend, Reeva Steenkamp, in the middle of the night on a gated, guarded estate built to keep the likes of her out.

Her childhood home in Orlando East, Soweto, was not unlike and not far from Nelson and Winnie Mandela’s old township house, where tourists now arrive in buses and pay to have a little look around its basic rooms. She is the eldest of 10 children, of whom only three remain. Five died in childhood, and another brother was stabbed to death in his twenties.

They slept three to a room, and she spent her days keeping lookout for police while her grandfather brewed beer in the garden. Her age may lend her the appearance of the wise judicial matriarch, but compared with the younger men in her courtroom, she is inexperienced.

She graduated from the law school at the University of South Africa in 1990, when she was 43, a few months before Mandela’s release. Gerrie Nel, the pugnacious state prosecutor, had already been at the bar for seven years by then.

But her short walk to her swivelling, raised, black judge’s chair each morning, which she does with a gentle limp that some claim is the result of polio, others a broken femur, but no one seems to know for sure, marks the end of a long and winding road.

Matilda Masipa is still known as “Tilly” to those who knew her when she was younger. Thokozile, her Zulu name emerged – as it did for many in the struggle – some time in the aftermath of the night she spent on the cold floor of a prison cell, covered for warmth in pages of her own newspaper, refusing to clean the built-up excrement of previous prisoners from the cell toilet.

The background to that incident is instructive. By 1974 she had managed to get a BA in social work, and then a job as a junior reporter at The World newspaper, until it was banned in 1977. By all accounts quiet and hard-working, she moved to the Post, as editor of its Woman’s section, replacing a British woman who had returned home saying it was impossible to raise children in South Africa. “That position was for a white woman,” one of her former colleagues, Pearl Luthuli, has recalled.

The white British woman who went home had been using the page for important women’s issues, like “How to Keep Your Man”. But these were the days when the police were shooting dead peacefully protesting children such as 13-year-old Hector Pieterson on the Soweto streets, in 1976. The days of the assassination of the activist Steve Biko, a year later. She wrote about anti-apartheid protests and the victims of police brutality, especially women.

When that paper, too, was being suppressed, she and other journalists marched in Johannesburg and ended up in the cells, sleeping next to the filthy toilet they would not clean. It took the intervention of the newspaper’s white owners, who needed their staff back, to secure their release.

In 1998, she became only the second black woman judge appointed to the High Court. Since she was put in charge of this case – a decision the South African authorities insist was entirely procedural, and we will never be told any different – two of her previous rulings have been near constantly discussed.

One is her exploitation of a narrow constitutional avenue to hand a 252-year sentence to a serial rapist, noting in her judgment that the victims had been attacked “in the sanctity of their own homes where they thought they were safe”.

The other was the life sentence given to a police officer who shot his estranged wife as they argued over their divorce settlement. “You deserve to go to jail for life because you are not a protector. You are a killer,” she told him.

These cases have been deployed many times over the past six months to paint a picture of a judge especially impassioned by crimes against women. Her interpretation will be crucial, but there is nothing concrete to suggest that her defence of women trumps what those who know her say is her principal interest – in fairness, in justice. In those two cases, the facts were beyond doubt. This one, by the manner of Ms Steenkamp’s death, shot through a locked door behind which she could not be seen, is more complex.

Of course, Masipa’s verdict does not change what happened in that quiet, gated, guarded house in those horrifying moments on 14 February last year, and there are many millions on either side who will never accept whatever decision she reaches. Either way, on Thursday, she must finally open the box, and reveal what thoughts have been whirring all along behind that kind but unreadable face.

A life in brief

Born: 16 October 1947, in Soweto, South Africa.

Family: The eldest of 10; her mother was a teacher. She is married to a tax consultant; they have two children.

Education: A BA in social work from the University of Natal (1974) and Bachelor of Laws from the University of South Africa (1990).

Career: After working as a social worker and crime reporter, she turned to law and was made a judge in 1998. She has presided over the Pistorius trial since March.

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