South Africa’s Justice Minister on Friday rebuked prosecutors for charging 270 miners with the murder of 34 striking colleagues shot dead by police, saying the decision had caused “shock, panic and confusion” among the general public. The police killing of the strikers at the Marikana mine this month was one of the worst such incidents since the end of white rule in 1994. The arrested miners have been charged under a law dating from the apartheid era under which they are deemed to have had a “common purpose” in the murder of their co-workers.
The African National Congress (ANC), whose members used to be gunned down by apartheid police at protest rallies and targeted with draconian laws, has been severely criticised for using similar tactics now that it is in power. President Jacob Zuma has seen his support erode, with his enemies saying he is more interested in getting close to industry and powerful labour groups than miners working deep underground.
Zuma, speaking at a congress of the Socialist International on Friday, did not comment on the murder charges. His justice minister, Jeff Radebe, wanted answers. “There is no doubt that the decision has induced a sense of shock, panic and confusion within the members of the community and the general South African public. It is therefore incumbent upon me to seek clarity,” he said in a statement.
Prosecutors on Thursday charged the 270 miners, already under arrest on suspicion of murder in a earlier shooting at the mine, with the Aug. 16 murder of 34 co-workers at the Marikana mine of the world’s third biggest platinum producer, Lonmin , using the “common purpose” law. The 34 were shot in a hail of police bullets in what has been dubbed the “Marikana Massacre” with videos of the killings broadcast worldwide. Police will not be subject to punishment until the conclusion of a government probe early next year.
Common purpose was often used by the apartheid government against blacks to sentence numerous people for crimes committed by only a few. Mosiuoa Lekota, a former ANC cabinet minister and now leader of the COPE opposition party, was imprisoned during apartheid in a case where the common purpose doctrine was invoked. He said the decision to charge the miners was a setback for democracy.