Oscar Pistorius at the Pretoria High Court.
Talk to South Africans and many will tell you the "most incredible sight" on display at the trial of Oscar Pistorius is not their country's favourite son in the dock charged with the murder of his girlfriend, Reeva Steenkamp, but that of the black woman who will decide his fate.
Judge Thokozile Matilda Masipa, 66, grew up during the cruellest years of her nation's apartheid regime yet rose to become just the second black female judge in South Africa.
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 Thokozile Masipa
Thanks partly to the difficulty of finding jurors untainted by the racial perversions engendered by that political system, South Africa abandoned jury trials in 1969, with cases now decided by a judge, aided by two assessors. In the Pistorius case those people are Masipa and Janet Henzen-du Toi, an advocate who is a white woman, as well as, Themba Mazibuko, a former legal academic, who is a black man.
As one former advocate said to me: "For a South African of my age, it is really quite amazing to look up and see the judge is not only a woman but black".
"For an entire generation of white South Africans, a black woman was either their maid or nanny and judges were almost exclusively white males. To see Masipa presiding over the trial of not only a white man but a rich, famous, white man, this is a stunning symbol of just how far the country has come," he said.
Another South African told me "it is almost beyond my comprehension" the level of determination Masipa must have had to get an education, then find "the passion and drive in such a racist society to suceed like she has".
In comparison to judges in other high-profile "celebrity trials" like Judge Lance Ito in the O.J. Simpson murder trial and Judge Michael Pastor in Dr Conrad Murray's trial for the involuntary manslaughter of Michael Jackson, very little is known about Judge Masipa save that she likes dancing, gardening and yoga, is married and has one son.
Despite having worked as a newspaper reporter earlier in her career and being on the record as saying judges should interact with the media to explain their decisions, Masipa has kept a low public profile.
A 1999 announcement of her appoinment to the judiciary says she was born in the Johannesburg township of Orlando East, Soweto in 1947, the year before apartheid became an official ideology in South Africa.
She received a Bachelor of Arts degree, with a specialisation in social work, in 1974 and was later employed as a journalist for The World, The Post and The Sowetan newspapers before earning a law degree in 1990 from the University of South Africa. She became an advocate in 1991.
In her time on the bench, Judge Masipa has shown little tolerance for crimes against women, handing down a 252-year sentence last year to a serial rapist and robber and, prior to that, a life sentence to a policeman who shot and killed his wife during an argument about a divorce settlement.
During that trial she said: “No one is above the law. You deserve to go to jail for life because you are not a protector, you are a killer.”
In 2001, Masipa sentenced two rapists to life in prison, commenting: “Women feel unsafe, even in the sanctity of their own homes, and look to these courts to protect their interests, which courts can only do by meting out harsh sentences.”
While some might speculate this does not bode well for Pistorius, Masipa was not appointed to the trial for political reasons, merely chosen by luck from a routine allocation of court cases. Though her opinion on the blade runner's guilt or innocence is foremost, if both assessors disagree with her, Masipa's judgment can be overruled.
Nonetheless, Pistorius's unctuous use of the honorific "My Lady" every time he answers a question, has also struck many South Africans as over-kill on his part and might obscure the fact that outside of courtrooms, blacks in South Africa still occupy third place on the social ladder behind whites and Indians.
"Apartheid as a political system may be dead, but an economic Apartheid is still firmly in place. The poverty amongst blacks is endemic. Don't let one black, female judge fool you into thinking this is anything approaching the norm," said one observer.
The inversion of the social dynamics in Pretoria's North Gauteng High Court over the last month might be "incredible" but it is still rare.