When news hit South Africa that HIV positive serial rapist Sifiso Makhubo had committed suicide in jail before his trial started, the families of 122 girls were relieved their children would not be forced to relive excruciating details of their ordeal in court.
But for Cypriot-born prosecutor Maro Papachristoforou, the frustration of losing 18 months of hard work but most importantly the opportunity to set a precedent regarding attempted murder through HIV in the South African justice system, was “a great letdown”.
The accused had allegedly acted in the areas where the girls lived and approached them under the pretence that he was looking for someone, or that he was a police officer or security guard investigating a complaint.
A total of 34 girls and two women were raped between 2006 and 2011, the youngest being just eight years old.
During an interview with South African television in August, Papachristoforou explained the significance of the case she had been working on for almost two years.
“It would have been quite a landmark decision because on a high court level it would have created a clear precedent which all prosecutors in our country could refer to,” she said.
“From a lower court level we would then have been able to use this as a test case to bring in all cases where attempted murder through HIV is involved and it would have had a great effect on our country and our law system and we needed it.”
The 45-year-old senior advocate with Africa’s National Prosecuting Authority is one of the country’s most prominent prosecutors and has worked her way up the ladder of the South African judicial system one step at a time. After obtaining her BIURIS law degree, Papachristoforou was immediately seconded as a first year prosecutor and spent about six years working at the criminal courts in Johannesburg.
“I was initially placed in the district courts which handled the smaller crimes such as theft, common assault, drinking and driving, and was later moved to the Judicial Inquests court where I spent some time reading all the unresolved and ‘cold cases’ before moving again to the traffic courts, the family maintenance courts and the mental observation cases,” Papachristoforou told The Cyprus Weekly.
In 1999 she was transferred to the Regional court which canvassed more serious crimes where she spent about two years and was regularly utilised as a control prosecutor.
In January 2000 she was seconded to the Attorney General’s office in Johannesburg which is now known as the Director of Public Prosecutions Johannesburg. As she admits, however, her road to a successful career has not been an easy one.
“As a woman it is very difficult to build such a pressurised and powerful career anywhere in our world. I submit humbly that prosecution is not for the fainthearted. As a prosecutor one experiences the most horrible crimes known to man and you are the only one who stands between the family of the deceased and justice,” she explains.
For Papachristoforou, however, being a woman with Cypriot roots, the difficulty of building a career in prosecution was further compounded by the fact that she was neither English nor Afrikaans speaking, which was the norm at the time when she started her career.
“It is no secret that the legal field is a ‘man’s environment’ and comes with all the stress of a man’s world. I work in an environment where there is simply no room for weakness, apathy or mistakes. It’s an environment that is accompanied with very strong personalities and quick and accurate thinking,” she says.
In spite of the difficulties, Papachristoforou has almost hit the ceiling within the hierarchy of the Attorney General’s office and in a couple of years is planning to apply to go the Judicial Bench as a Regional Court Magistrate or a junior Judge.
“I am not in a hurry and I don’t have any fixed plans in place. Time will tell. In the meantime, I am perfectly happy fighting serious and violent crimes in South Africa,” she concludes.