Judge Thokozile Masipa, the judge presiding over the Oscar Pistorius murder trial in Pretoria, has a reputation for handing down the maximum sentence allowed when men are convicted of any type of violent crimes against women. The Pistorius trial judge, one of only three black women to be appointed a judge in South Africa, has meted out several very harsh sentences for rape, murder, robbery and attempted murder.
In May last year, Masipa, a former crime reporter, sentenced robber and serial rapist Shepherd Moyo to 252 years in jail after finding him guilty on three rape charges, one attempted murder charge and 11 charges of robbery and housebreaking. In 2009, she sentenced Freddy Mashamba, a police officer, to life in prison after she had convicted him of shooting his wife, Rudzani Ramango, dead at a police station.
A late starter in the world of law, Masipa became an advocate when she was in her late 40s. In South Africa, advocates are specialist litigators who represent clients in major cases, including those held in high courts, the Constitutional Court and the Supreme Court of Appeal. Attorneys are also lawyers, but not as highly qualified. An attorney works with an advocate when there is a murder trial such as the Oscar Pistorius trial currently playing out in the Pretoria High Court. Masipa was appointed as a judge in 1998, four years after Yvonne Mokgoro was made a Constitutional Court judge, and three years after Mokgadi Lucy Mailula joined the High Court Bench.
Of Moyo, Judge Masipa said she was particularly concerned that he had “attacked and molested the victims in the sanctity of their own homes, where they thought they were safe.” She was also struck by the fact that he “showed no remorse,” indicating that he probably would not be easily rehabilitated. When passing down her sentence to Mashamba, she said that nobody was “above the law.” Instead of being “a protector,” which is what policemen should be, she told him, “You are a killer.” For this reason, she said he deserved to “go to jail for life.”
The harsh sentences for violent crimes against women these two men had committed were based on the maximum allowable sentences permitted for the crimes for which they were convicted. If Oscar Pistorius is convicted of the main charge of premeditated murder, he will get a life sentence, though he would probably be released on parole after 25 years. If convicted of murder (unpremeditated), he would receive 15 years from the trial judge.
In addition to the main charge, Pistorius also faces two charges of discharging a firearm in a public place, and another of illegally possessing ammunition. He has pleaded not guilty to all four charges.
Meanwhile, a vocal group of women belonging to the Women’s League of the country’s ruling African National Congress (ANC) party have regularly marched in support of Reeva Steenkamp outside the Pretoria High Court, both at Pistorius’s bail hearing last year and the murder trial that began last Monday. A few of the women have also attended court proceedings. They have said that they will continue their protest against what they identify as violent crimes against women, or “domestic violence,” a prolific crime that cuts across racial and social boundaries in South Africa.
Pistorius is charged with killing Steenkamp at his upscale Pretoria home in the early hours of Valentine’s Day 2013. He admits to shooting her through a locked bathroom door, but has maintained since that fateful morning that he thought whoever was in the toilet was an intruder, and not Steenkamp.
Most of the ANC Women’s League members who have been seen outside court are thought to have caught a bus or walked to the location. Most are older women, and none are likely to have ever met either Pistorius or the woman he killed. The placards they have been carrying say things like: “No to killing of women and children,” “No violence against women” and “Pistorius must rot in jail.”
Ironically, just a few days before she was murdered, Steenkamp tweeted support for an end to violence against women. This followed the brutal murder and rape of a teenage girl in the Western Cape on Feb. 2, 2013. Steenkamp tweeted that she had woken up in a home that was happy and safe that day, but that not everybody had been that lucky. “Speak out against the rape of individuals,” she wrote.
While there has been some criticism of women’s groups using the Pistorius murder trial to publicize violent crimes against women, gender activist Lisa Vetten has pointed out that statistics show 90 percent of women in South Africa have experienced physical and emotional abuse. She says the country also has an extremely high rate of “intimate femicide,” which refers to a man killing his female partner. Since there is no jury system in South Africa, Judge Masipa will decide first whether Pistorius is guilty of the crimes he has been charged with, and if he is, which harsh sentences to impose. The case resumes tomorrow.
By Penny Swift