Pistorius trial judge under scrutiny

Cape Town - In 15 years on the bench, Judge Thokozile Matilda Masipa has heard a few high profile cases, but they will all be eclipsed by the drama and world-wide scrutiny of the Oscar Pistorius murder trial.

The justice department is expecting 300 journalists to cover the case - double the scrum that attended the Paralympian's bail hearings - and Masipa is considering formal requests to allow live television broadcasts of the proceedings in the North Gauteng High Court in Pretoria.

She was a crime reporter whose stories often told of the indignities of life under apartheid and went on to become an advocate in her late forties. She was named a judge in the Transvaal division in 1998, becoming only the second black woman on the Bench after former Constitutional Court judge Yvonne Mokgoro.

Newsworthy judgments

Among her judgments that have made news were the sentencing of serial rapist and robber Shepherd Moyo and the dismissal of sacked Eskom CEO Jacob Maroga's claim for R85m in compensation.

Masipa ruled in favour of Eskom and the public enterprises department. Her comments included salient points on where government's powers in relation to state-owned enterprises began and ended.

At a time when Maroga's case reportedly divided sympathies in government, she remarked in her ruling: "A shareholder does not have the right to interfere in the decision-making of the board in respect to the company's internal affairs."

She also said: "The power of the minister to appoint directors to the board of Eskom should not be confused with the power of the board to employ and terminate the employment contract of the CEO: a written contract of employment exists between Mr Maroga and Eskom. The minister is not party to that contract and has no right to interfere with it. The minister performs no executive role in Eskom."

Masipa has contributed to case law regarding the constitutional duties of local government on housing.

In Blue Moonlight Properties 39 v Occupiers Saratoga Avenue, she held in 2009 that the City of Johannesburg had failed to fulfil its obligations to find alternative accommodation for squatters who were threatened with eviction from old warehouses in Berea.

The council had submitted that it "cannot for the time being make any of its emergency shelters available for any persons evicted". The judge criticised the statement as "vague in the extreme and not helpful at all".

"It is clear that the city is trying to distance itself from the problems of the unlawful occupiers in this matter. This indeed is at odds with the Constitution and is tantamount to failure by the city to comply with its constitutional obligations," she said.

Maximum sentences

After the justice department announced she would hear the Pistorius case, media has focused attention on two judgments in which she handed down maximum sentences to men convicted of violence against women.

The Moyo case was one of these. Delivered in May last year, it saw Masipa hand down a 252-year sentence she said was intended to serve as a deterrent.

She said in her judgment that the three rape victims of the man who carried out a spate of house robberies in northern Johannesburg had been left traumatised for life and his lack of remorse made it unlikely he could be rehabilitated.

"The worst in my view is that he attacked and raped the victims in the sanctity of their own homes where they thought they were safe," she said.

In 2009, Masipa handed down a life sentence to a policeman, Freddy Mashamba, who shot and killed his former wife after a row over their divorce settlement.

"No one is above the law. You deserve to go to jail for life because you are not a protector. You are a killer," Masipa said.

Her peers say the respected legal mind and eloquent competence are coupled with a diffident nature that does not gravitate to the spotlight she will endure from 3 March. The judge has appointed two assessors, who have not been named.

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