JOHANNESBURG – About 270 miners were charged Thursday with the murders of 34 striking colleagues who were shot by South African police officers, authorities said, a development that could further infuriate South Africans already shocked and angered by the police action.
The decision to charge the miners comes under an arcane Roman-Dutch common purpose law used under the apartheid regime, and it suggests President Jacob Zuma's government wants to shift blame for the killings from police to the striking miners.
Firebrand politician Julius Malema, who has seized on the shootings to score political points, told supporters of miners outside the courthouse that the charges were "madness."
"The policemen who killed those people are not in custody, not even one of them. This is madness," said Malema, who was expelled from the governing African National Congress in April. "The whole world saw the policemen kill those people."
The Mail and Guardian newspaper quoted constitutional law expert Pierre de Vos as saying the decision to charge the miners with the murders was "bizarre and shocking and represents a flagrant abuse of the criminal justice system in an effort to protect the police and/or politicians like Jacob Zuma and (Police Minister) Nathi Mthethwa."
National Prosecuting Authority spokesman Frank Lesenyego told The Associated Press that "It's the police who were shooting, but they were under attack by the protesters, who were armed, so today the 270 accused are charged with the murders" of those who were shot.
More than 150 of the arrested miners have filed complaints that they have been beaten up in police cells by officers, the Independent Police Complaints Directorate reported earlier this week.
Directorate spokesman Moses Dlamini said the complainants accused police of beating them with batons and fists and kicking and slapping them to force them to give the names of miners who hacked two police officers to death in a week of violence preceding the shootings. Eight other people were killed, including three miners and two mine security guards whom striking miners burned alive in their vehicle.
The strike, apparently rooted in rivalry between two trade unions, had rock drill operators demanding a minimum wage of 12,500 rand ($1,560) and complaining that their take-home pay was only about 5,500 rand ($688).
On Aug. 16, police said they had failed to persuade the strikers to disarm and that it was "D-Day" to end the strike at the London-registered Lonmin PLC platinum mine. That afternoon, striking miners armed with clubs, machetes and at least one gun allegedly charged at police, who opened fire, killing 34 and wounding at least 78.
Some survivors said many of the miners were fleeing police tear gas and water cannons when they were shot.
Dlamini has refused to comment on local news reports that autopsies show many of those killed were shot in the back.
Police Commissioner Gen. Riah Phiyega has been criticized for saying her officers "did nothing wrong." She said they acted in self-defense, using live bullets only after they were fired upon and had failed to stop a charge of miners with water cannons, stun grenades, tear gas and rubber bullets.
Prosecution spokesman Lesenyego said the 270 miners were charged under Roman-Dutch law that held sway in South Africa before a new liberal constitution was adopted after apartheid ended in 1994. He said it was case law, meaning it has been used in previous cases and that there is legal precedent even though it is not in the constitution.
The police killings were the worst public display of state-sponsored violence since apartheid was overthrown and have traumatized a nation that hoped it had seen the last of such scenes.
The common purpose law being used to charge the miners was fought by the African National Congress when it was a liberation movement, accusing the white minority government of using it to make victims of a crime its perpetrators. The ANC has been in power for 18 years and the miserable living conditions of miners has highlighted its failure to transform the wealth of Africa's richest nation into better lives for the majority of its 48 million citizens, who continue to battle unemployment, housing shortages and poor health and education services.
In the fallout from the killings, the bitter mine strike has strengthened. Lonmin reported an average of 6.6 percent of workers showed up across various shifts Thursday, down from 13 percent on Monday and 50 percent on Saturday.
Lonmin said many workers were being intimidated and feared for their safety if they returned to work. The company has suffered a serious hit to its share price and has said it probably cannot meet debt payments, due next month, because of the strike that started Aug. 10.