South African Justice Minister Jeff Radebe has demanded that the National Prosecuting Authority give him the reasons for using an apartheid-era law to charge 270 striking miners with murder for the deaths of 34 fellow workers shot by police this month.
Police killed the men at Lonmin Plc’s platinum mine in Marikana, in North West province, on Aug. 16 as they tried to disperse them following a six-day standoff in which 10 people, including two officers, were killed. The workers had been staging an illegal strike to demand higher pay and police say they were fired upon by the crowd before they shot.
Prosecutors charged the men under the “common purpose” law for participating in a demonstration that led to the deaths of others, the British Broadcasting Corp. reported yesterday. The law was used by the white minority government that ended in 1994 to crack down on anti-apartheid protesters, Pierre de Vos, a University of Cape Town Law Professor, said in a blog published yesterday.
“The NPA’s decision has induced a sense of shock, panic and confusion within the members of the community and the general South African public,” Radebe said in an e-mailed statement today.
In addition to murder, the miners face charges of attempted murder, public violence, illegal gathering, possession of dangerous weapons and possession of firearms and ammunition, the NPA said in an e-mailed statement today.
“The prosecution has evidence that it is confident is sufficient to sustain the charges that have been brought against the miners,” the NPA said. “Co-perpetrators may be held liable for the death of members of their own group or of others where there was sufficient evidence that they foresaw that death may result as a consequence of their collective action.”
The NPA’s head of North West province, Johan Smit, personally approved the charges, the authority said.
Toward the end of white minority rule 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 De Vos. The law was never struck off the statute books after democracy in 1994, unlike many similar apartheid laws.
The decision to press murder charges “is bizarre and shocking and represents a flagrant abuse of the criminal justice system,” De Vos 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.
The Lonmin mine remains closed with talks between management and workers due to resume next week.