JOHANNESBURG — South Africa's justice minister, Jeff Radebe, has demanded that prosecutors explain why striking miners are being charged with the murder of 34 fellow workers who by all accounts were shot and killed by police.
Radebe said the decision by South Africa's National Prosecuting Authority to invoke an apartheid-era legal charge has induced a sense of "shock, panic and confusion."
Prosecutors charged the 270 miners involved at the strike at the Lonmin platinun mine on Thursday, using an obscure statute, known as the "common purpose law," under which people in a crowd where a crime was committed can be charged as accomplices.
That law was used most famously in the case of the so-called “Upington 14,” who were sentenced to death for a crowd killing a policeman in 1985. The black activists were convicted under the clause even though it was acknowledged that they did not commit the act.
The court's decision has been widely condemned, including by the powerful Congress of South African Trade Unions, which said it was "absolutely outraged" by the move.
No police have been charged, but the government has ordered an investigation into the August 16 shooting. Police have said they were shot at first and had no choice but to respond in self-defense.
Respected legal scholar Pierre de Vos said in his popular legal blog that the charge is “bizarre and shocking and represents a flagrant abuse of the criminal justice system.”
The decision was also politically ill-advised, said political analyst Adam Habib.
“I think it’s outrageous. I think it’s a silly thing, especially given the fact that they considered doing it under the common purpose law that used to be applied by the apartheid regime," he said. "It’s silly, it's, I think, dangerous in terms of the risk of polarizing the political situation even further and elevating tensions.”
The platinum miners were holding a wildcat strike seeking a threefold pay raise to about $1,500 a month.
They had gathered for several days outside the mine. Before the shootings, eight protesters and two policemen had already died in strike-related confrontations.
Locals say they think the "common purpose" charge defies common sense. Primrose Sonti, who works for Lonmin, but is not a miner, says people are incredulous -- and angry.
“It’s very very unfair … it’s shown on the TV, everybody saw that, there’s no worker who can confuse the other colleagues," Sonti said. "And then our question is: where were the police when these miners killed the other miners? What were they doing at that time, the police, if they say it’s the miners who killed the other miners? They just want to defend themselves. The mineworkers are innocent of that thing. It’s the police who killed the miners.”
And one prominent South African journalist says the court has it backwards. He believes police shot miners at point-blank range in what he says was a coordinated effort.
Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer Greg Marinovich, who wrote the book "The Bang Bang Club" about the end of apartheid in South Africa, says he spent two weeks investigating the incident. He spoke to VOA from the scene on Friday, and described one particularly telling spot on the crime scene where it appeared that one victim was trapped between two large boulders and had nowhere to go.
“They had to have been shot at very close range," Marinovich said. "Even the wild spraying of bullets on rocks and lots of markings - no, it’s not, it doesn’t look like that. There’s the occasional chipped rock from a bullet, and there’s a bloody spot marked by yellow tape, to show where one of them died. Especially one of them, he was completely surrounded by rock. You have to get very close to shoot that person, very close. … so the chances are very high that that person got shot in that spot and died there." He added, "To me, that is not policing. That person can’t escape, that person is going nowhere. If there were any of them shooting at the police, there is not a single injured policeman or police report that they were shot at, nothing. And that to me is the police doing summary executions.”
Officials from the National Prosecuting Authority did not answer calls seeking comment on Friday.
Spokesman Frank Lesenyego told local media that all the workers would face murder charges, including those who were at the back of the crowd or were unarmed, and that the charge applies to situation in which suspects have weapons and attack law enforcement.
Investigations continue, and more court appearances are expected. Meanwhile, South Africa’s court of public opinion is churning away.