Oscar Pistorius during his bail application at the Pretoria Magistrate's Court this week. Picture: SUNDAY TIMES
Oscar Pistorius during his bail application at the Pretoria Magistrate's Court on February 19 2013. Picture: SUNDAY TIMES

JUDGE Thokozile Matilda Masipa, who last week was assigned to preside over the murder trial of Paralympian and double amputee Oscar Pistorius, has more than 15 years’ experience on the bench, including in a number of high-profile criminal trials.

Mr Pistorius fired four shots through a bathroom door in his Pretoria home on Valentine’s Day last year, killing his girlfriend, Reeva Steenkamp. He claims he mistook her for a burglar and acted in self-defence.

Mr Pistorius was held in a police cell after the murder of Steenkamp before being granted bail on February 22 last year.

The case, which begins in the high court on March 3, is again expected to attract public interest, and no doubt the spotlight will also fall on Judge Masipa.

In 1998 Judge Masipa, a former magazine editor and social worker, became the second black woman to be appointed to the high court after Lucy Mailula. Since then, many of the cases she has presided over in the South Gauteng High Court have made headlines. Her experience includes rape and murder trials, evictions, and civil claims involving millions of rand.

She has also, in her judgments, spoken out strongly about violence against women and emphasised that no one is above the law.

Last year Judge Masipa sentenced notorious house robber and rapist Shepherd Moyo to 252 years in prison. This included 15 years each for 11 counts of robbery, 12 years for attempted murder and life sentences for three rape convictions.

In 2001 she sentenced two men who had raped a woman to life imprisonment. In her sentencing, Judge Masipa said violence, and especially the rape of women and children, was escalating at an alarming rate.

She said women "feel unsafe, even in the sanctity of their own homes, and look to these courts to protect their interests", which courts could do "by meting out harsh sentences".

Although punishment should emphasise rehabilitation and prevention, especially when the accused were young, she said, in th e 2001 rape case deterrence should play a more prominent role due to the seriousness and prevalence of the offence.

Judge Masipa also made the news in 2009 when she issued a life sentence to a policeman who shot his former wife.

While Thelma and Freddy Mashamba were divorced, they were constantly fighting over how to divide their estate.

Mashamba appeared in the Musina Magistrate’s Court and was found guilty of murder. The matter was transferred to the Polokwane high court for sentencing. In sentencing, Judge Masipa said Mashamba deserved a life sentence for the murder. She said the sentence needed to serve as a lesson to other police officers that conflict could not be resolved by killing someone.

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

She was also involved in the famous Blue Moonlight Properties judgment in September 2008, in which she ordered the City of Johannesburg to report to the court what steps it had taken to provide emergency shelter or other housing for the unlawful occupiers of a building in the event of their eviction.

The owner of the building had contended that the city was obliged to provide temporary accommodation and eventually permanent accommodation to the unlawful occupiers.

Another judgment in which Judge Masipa is often quoted is her granting of a summary judgment in favour of Standard Bank against Salalidis Panayiotts in 2009. In that judgment, Judge Masipa said considerations of fairness required that the circumstances of both the debtor and the credit provider be given equal consideration.

"Where it is clear that the credit provider is likely to be greatly prejudiced if the protection measures provided by the provisions of the (National Credit Act) are implemented, courts should be reluctant to assist the defendant," she said.

In another notable judgment, in 2010, Judge Masipa dismissed an application by former Eskom CEO Jacob Maroga, who was challenging the lawfulness of the termination of his contract at the parastatal and who sought R85m as compensation.

Judge Masipa matriculated in 1976 and was a social worker and journalist before obtaining her LLB in 1990. She was admitted as an advocate a year later.