South Africa Drops Murder Charges Against Lonmin Miners

South African prosecutors dropped murder charges against 270 striking miners after being criticized for using an apartheid-era law to hold them liable for the deaths of 34 fellow workers shot by police.

The mineworkers will be released from prison and the case postponed until a judicial commission of inquiry completes its work, Acting National Director of Prosecutions Nomgcobo Jiba told reporters in Pretoria yesterday. The murder charges may be reinstated following the investigation, she said.

South African Justice Minister Jeff Radebe said on Aug. 31 the decision by the National Prosecuting Authority to pursue murder charges against the strikers had caused “shock, panic and confusion.” Police killed the workers at Lonmin Plc (LON)’s platinum mine in Marikana, in North West province, on Aug. 16 as they tried to disperse them following a six-day standoff. Prosecutors charged the strikers last week with murder under the “common purpose” law, which the white minority government had used in the past to crack down on anti-apartheid protesters.

“The protesters are to be released conditionally on warning and their case postponed pending the finalization of investigations including the investigations by the commission,” Jiba said. “The decision to institute murder charges against the miners is based on a sound legal principle which has not only been part of our legal system for decades, but continues to remain relevant and applicable in our democratic dispensation.”

Apartheid Law

In addition to murder, the miners had faced charges of attempted murder, public violence, illegal gathering, possession of dangerous weapons and possession of firearms and ammunition, the NPA said on Aug. 31. The NPA’s head of North West province, Johan Smit, had personally approved the charges, the authority said.

Toward the end of white minority rule in 1994 and under increased internal and external pressure from opponents, the state relied more on the provisions of the Riotous Assembly Act of 1956 as well as the common purpose doctrine in an attempt to criminalize the actions of all people involved in protest action, according to Pierre De Vos, a law professor at the University of Cape Town. The law was never struck off the statute books after democracy in 1994, unlike many similar apartheid laws, he said on a weblog on Aug. 30.

Prosecutors have in “many cases” used the principle of holding suspects liable for murder if their actions resulted in the deaths of others, Jiba said.

Judicial Inquiry

“Where a group of armed robbers meet resistance and a violent confrontation ensues during which one of the robbers or bystanders is killed by either police or co-robbers, the co- robbers may be charged with the murder of the co-robber or bystander,” Jiba said.

President Jacob Zuma has set up a judicial commission of inquiry to probe the shootings, the deadliest police action since the end of apartheid. Police said they acted in self- defense after being shot at from the crowd of about 3,000 strikers as they were being dispersed.

Zuma won’t intervene to release the miners, his office said in an e-mailed statement on Sept. 1. Jiba said she hasn’t been in contact with Zuma’s office regarding the case.

The Lonmin mine remains closed with talks between management and workers due to resume this week.

To contact the reporter on this story: Andres R. Martinez in Johannesburg at

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Nasreen Seria at

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