It’s naive to believe Thokozile Masipa could be objective in Oscar Pistorius case
She was operating against the backdrop of a racist and patriarchal society when she made her judgment and sentencing decision
When the news broke that Oscar Pistorius killed his girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp, shock waves reverberated across South Africa and the entire world. The Blade Runner, a much-beloved son of the African soil who had overcome his double leg amputation to become an Olympic running champion, went from superstar athlete to accused killer overnight.
Spectators in the packed Pretoria, South Africa, courtroom and across the world watching the televised trial day after day heard the graphic details of how Pistorius shot Steenkamp to death in the early hours of Feb. 14, 2013. The model and law graduate was shot at four times from outside a locked bathroom door at Pistorius’ home, taking three bullets, including one to her head, which blew off the back of her skull.
Despite these disturbing details, presiding Judge Thokozile Masipa dismissed charges of premeditated murder, finding Pistorius guilty of the lesser charge of culpable homicide, resting the case on the notion that he had not intentionally killed his girlfriend. Even though South Africa has, and continues to have, one of the highest intimate partner violence and femicide rates in the world. Masipa later sentenced him to five years in prison. Many commentators were incredulous that Masipa had been so lenient in sentencing.
Her judgment was further called into question when the South African Supreme Court of Appeal overturned her initial verdict and upgraded the culpable homicide charge to one of murder. On the back of the Supreme Court ruling, Masipa added only one year to Pistorius’ five-year sentence. Once again, the Supreme Court stepped in and upgraded Pistorius’ sentence to 15 years, the minimum sentence for murder in South Africa. Until Masipa was assigned the Pistorius case, her reputation was one of a judge who was fair and compassionate, dedicated to rolling back the intrinsic biases in a social and judicial system that historically underpinned patriarchy and misogyny, as well as racism. So, what went wrong?
During this entire sordid tale, there are a number of important dynamics that were at play. These intersect race, class, gender and South Africa’s complex history of white supremacy, Black subjugation and violence against women.
It is critical to highlight that Pistorius is a white man from Pretoria, South Africa’s capital city and historic bastion of white supremacist rule. A place where Black people were denied access to dignity and humanity. A place where Black people legally could be stopped and searched without cause by white society. A place where Black people lived under permanent curfew as they were legally excluded from specific areas that white people kept for themselves. A place where many freedom fighters were the victims of extrajudicial killings. Pistorius was raised in a comfortable and spacious home and attended the elite Pretoria Boys High School. His family was wealthy. Even in the dock, facing murder charges, Pistorius occupied a position of racial, gender and material privilege.
In stark juxtaposition, Masipa, the eldest of 10 children, is a Black woman who grew up in Orlando East in the Johannesburg township of Soweto, South Africa. She was raised in a one-bedroom structure with her siblings and parents. Masipa studied for her law degree for an entire decade while raising her children and working full time as a journalist. She would become South Africa’s second Black female judge in the history of the country’s judicial system just a few years after the tumultuous dismantling of apartheid.
Despite Masipa’s tale of endurance and triumph, it would be naive for any onlooker to believe that she could be utterly objective in the face of presiding over a murder trial of a globally beloved, rich white sporting superstar. It is a fantasy to believe that the criminal justice system then, and now, is not subject to subjectivity. In the United States, we see this in the institutionalized disproportionate arrest, incarceration and state-sponsored violence against Black and brown people. In the Pistorius case, the opposite dynamics were seemingly at play in light of Masipa’s lenient approach to the outcome.
Masipa was operating against the backdrop of a racist and patriarchal society when she decided on her verdict and sentencing under the gaze of the entire world that praised and hero-worshipped Pistorius. While her professional competence was brought into question by the South African Supreme Court of Appeal, scant appreciation for her own background came into public debate. A historically disadvantaged Black woman holding the fate of a rich and revered white man in her hands, as the entire world looked on, could not have been a comfortable space to occupy. Ingrained brainwashing that “white is right” may very well have evoked deep-seated triggers and an inability to view a white perpetrator as a brutal killer. It is a tragically ironic frame of reference given the centuries-old deadly and abusive brutality of colonial conquest across the world and the unapologetic, explicit institutionalization of racial segregation and subjugation of Black people in apartheid South Africa.
In historical and cultural societal terms, it is critical to resurrect the reality that in 2013, at the time of Steenkamp’s murder, South Africa had only been freed from the chains of apartheid for 19 years. Apartheid was a twisted system of terror, a state-designed and sanctioned regime underpinned by the abuse and murder of Black people. It was an entire societal creation of dehumanization and disenfranchisement of South Africa’s majority-Black population by a minority-white population that intrinsically believed in exerting racial primacy over Black populations via violence and brutality. The emotional and psychological trauma within Black society did not end when apartheid was officially dismantled in 1994, and persists to this day. It would be naive to believe that Masipa was not impacted, as a Black woman born and raised under societal, systemic and institutional racial oppression.
Narratives that posit Pistorius as the tragic fallen hero conveniently erase that his physical disability in no way disabled his position of privilege. Masipa’s own history of abuse and imprisonment, due to her anti-apartheid activism at the hands of the very justice system she now helmed, presents the likelihood of subconscious psychological conditioning to proceed with caution. This dynamic highlights the insidious nature and ever-present danger of white male supremacy that continues to entrench white privilege in South Africa.
“The Life and Trials of Oscar Pistorius,” a four-part 30-for-30 film is available on ESPN+