JOHANNESBURG: South African prosecutors Thursday charged 270 mine workers with the murder of 34 striking colleagues shot dead by police, in a decision panned as “madness.”
Police said they acted in self-defense when they opened fire on workers at a platinum mine outside Rustenburg, northwest of Johannesburg, killing 34, after a standoff that had already killed 10 including two police officers.
The incident was the worst day of police violence in South Africa since the end of white-minority apartheid rule in 1994.
Prosecuting authorities said the 270 detained workers would face trial for the murder of their colleagues.
“The court today charged all the workers with murder, under the common purpose law,” the spokesman for the prosecutor’s office Frank Lesenyego said.
He did not give details, saying they would be revealed in court next week.
But Julius Malema, a former youth leader with the ruling ANC, said he was dismayed by the decision to charge the miners who survived the Aug. 16 bloodbath at the Marikana mine.
“That is madness. The whole world saw police kill those workers. The policemen who killed those miners are not in custody,” he said.
A legal expert also questioned the decision to lay charges.
“In charging the miners for the death of miners killed by the police, I don’t see how common purpose doctrine could be used here,” said Vincent Nmehille, a law professor at the University of the Witwatersrand, referring to a so-called common purpose law under which they had been charged.
A Pullitzer Prize-winning photographer alleged Thursday that police shot the strikers dead “in cold blood.”
“Heavily armed police hunted down and killed the miners in cold blood,” wrote South African photographer Greg Marinovich on the Daily Maverick news website.
Most of the dead were shot away from blaring cameras, said Marinovich.
“A minority were killed in the filmed event where police claim they acted in self-defense. The rest was murder on a massive scale.”
Meanwhile, talks to end the dispute continued with mine owners Lonmin and mediators optimistic about a breakthrough to end the three-week strike over wages.
The talks brokered by government officials entered their second day after negotiators met for 12 straight hours the day before in Rustenburg.
“I think today will be the deciding day in terms of the way forward. I think it’s D-Day,” mediator Bishop Jo Seoka from the South African Council of Churches told AFP.
Lonmin spokeswoman Sue Vey said the government mediation was “very constructive.”
“We hope to find a resolution today,” she told AFP.
The company wants a “peace accord” sealed before starting negotiations on workers’ wage demands. But workers, who say they earn 4,000 rand ($470) a month and want 12,500 rand, insist they will not go back underground until their demands are met.
Representatives of big player the National Union of Mineworkers and the smaller Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union, whose bitter rivalry has been blamed for the unrest at the mine, are also at the talks.
A strike leader, Zolisa Bodlani, told workers gathered near the hill where police shot dead their colleagues that wage demands would be discussed.
The strike has paralyzed operations at Lonmin’s Marikana mine since 3,000 rock drill operators downed tools on Aug. 10.
As the deadlock approached its fourth week, worker attendance slid even further with only 6.6 percent of the 28,000-strong workforce reporting for duty Thursday. It was 7.7 percent Wednesday.
Mines Minister Susan Shabangu has meanwhile tried to calm investors’ nerves over the strike that has paralyzed operations at the Marikana mine which accounts for about 92 percent of Lonmin’s annual output.
“We urge our investors, incumbent and prospective, to take comfort in the solid foundations set by our constitution, government, legal and civil institutions and the leadership shown by our government,” Shabangu said in a speech delivered Wednesday at a conference in Perth, Australia.
London-listed Lonmin lies on South Africa’s platinum belt where Anglo-American Platinum, the world’s leading producer of the metal used in car exhausts and jewelry, is also based.