Judge Thokozile Masipa reads her judgement during the sentencing of paralympian Oscar Pistorius at the High Court in Pretoria. (Themba Hadebe/Agence France-Presse via Getty Images)

At the heart of the Oscar Pistorius trial was Judge Thokozile Masipa, 67, the official who, on Tuesday, sentenced the South African paralympian to five years in prison after finding him guilty of "culpable homicide" in the death of his girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp.

The trial has been the source of round-the-clock coverage in South Africa and intense international scrutiny. As jury trials no longer take place in South Africa, the verdict rested entirely on Masipa's shoulders. In 1998, she was only the second black woman to be appointed to the country's High Court. To this day, although the majority of the country's population is black, only 44 percent of its judges are, according to Britain's Guardian newspaper. Out of 239 judges in South Africa, only 76 are women.

Her involvement in the Pistorius case was a routine assignment, but few could ignore the striking symbolism of a black judge weighing the arguments of rival white lawyers in a high-profile trial of a white sport star that, from the outset, was conducted in the shadow of South Africa's troubled racial history.

In closing remarks, Masipa said she had to strike a "delicate balance" in determining the sentence for Pistorius, who she had earlier decided was not guilty of premeditated murder. "I am of the view that a non-custodial sentence would send the wrong message to the community," referring to the possibility of consigning Pistorius to house arrest rather than a prison term. "But a long sentence would not be appropriate because it would lack the elements of mercy."

This has irked some in South Africa, who think the verdict was too lenient on Pistorius and was a sign of the preferential treatment that the rich and powerful (and sometimes white) still receive in the country. The prosecution is weighing whether to appeal the sentence. Because of the nature of South Africa's prison laws, Pistorius is expected to serve only about 10 months in jail before he may be able to opt for house arrest.

Writing in the Guardian last month, South African journalist Mondli Makhanya summed up the national mood surrounding Masipa's deliberations:

In a country where race is still a major fact of life, the significance of all these whites daily showing deference to a black woman was not lost on the millions avidly following the trial. She was their pride as she imperiously but unobtrusively directed proceedings.

This pride was matched... by disappointment when Masipa acquitted the Paralympian of murder and instead found him guilty of culpable homicide. When her legal reasoning was questioned and ridiculed, it was as if she had let the entire side down. The source of pride had become a target of derision, and this hurt badly.

In previous cases involving violence against women, Masipa has shown a clear toughness. She handed a 252-year sentence to a serial rapist and burglar in May 2013. "The worst in my view is that he attacked and raped the victims in their own homes where they thought they were safe," she said when discussing his crimes.

In 2009, Masipa sent a police officer to jail for life after he killed his estranged wife over a divorce settlement. "You deserve to go to jail for life because you are not a protector. You are a killer," she told him.

Masipa's own story is a remarkable tale of struggle and courage. She was born in 1947, a year before the white nationalist party ruling South Africa solidified its racist, apartheid regime. She grew up in the infamous township of Soweto, near Johannesburg, and was the eldest of 10 children; five of her siblings died in childhood, and another was stabbed to death in his 20s. According to reports, her family home was so cramped that she would have to either sleep on the floor of her parents' bedroom or in the kitchen.

An intrepid student, she graduated high school and worked as a tea girl for five years so she could have money to attend university, where she studied social work. She then entered journalism as a crime reporter. At a protest over the press freedoms of black journalists, she and a number of colleagues were threatened with violence by white police officers, arrested and ordered to clean latrines clogged with the feces of other inmates. They refused, and their prolonged detention was ended only by the intervention of white editors at the newspaper where they worked.

That experience probably fueled her journey into law, which she started around the time South Africa had rounded a corner: Nelson Mandela had been released from prison, and the end of apartheid was in sight.

Masipa reflected on her role in the national narrative in a 2008 documentary. "In the past [black] people would stay away from the court and rather sort things out themselves," she said. "Now they see black people, and women, on the bench and they say maybe, if you want justice, the High Court is where you go."