JOHANNESBURG – South Africa's justice minister Friday challenged the top prosecutor's decision to charge 270 miners with the murders and attempted murders of 112 striking co-workers shot by the police, a development that indicates more divisions in the government over the killings that shocked the nation.
The National Prosecuting Authority's decision to charge the arrested miners under an apartheid-era law leaves the government open to accusations that it is acting like the former brutal white rulers. It appeared to be an attempt to shift the blame for the shootings from the police to the miners.
The Aug. 16 shootings by police that killed 34 striking miners and wounded 78 near the Lonmin platinum mine were the worst display of state violence since apartheid ended in 1994.
Justice Minister Jeff Radebe said the prosecutor's decision to charge the miners "has induced a sense of shock, panic and confusion," leading him to demand an explanation. "It is therefore incumbent upon me to seek clarity on the basis upon which such a decision is taken," he said in a statement.
The National Prosecuting Authority has no immediate response to the statement from Justice Minister Jeff Radebe, spokesman Mthunzi Mhaga said.
Rabble-rousing politician Julius Malema meanwhile declared he will make the country's mines ungovernable and took his first battle to a mine owned partly by President Jacob Zuma's nephew, Khulubuse Zuma, and Zondwa Mandela, a grandson of anti-apartheid icon Nelson Mandela.
"Our leaders have lost their way and have been co-opted by mine owners and fed profits. They don't care about you," Malema told cheering miners on Thursday. Malema was expelled from the governing African National Congress party in April and is pursuing a vendetta to get Zuma ousted.
"We are going to lead a mining revolution in this country. We will run these mines ungovernable until the boers (whites) come to the table," he told workers at Aurora gold mine in Grootvlei, east of Johannesburg.
The politically connected Aurora Empowerment Systems took over two working gold mines in 2009 from a company that went into liquidation. Since then, workers have not been paid and the mines have been stripped of their assets. About 5,000 people lost their jobs. The company has ignored a court order to pay its workers 4.3 million rand ($537,500) and refuses to comment on the affair.
Malema's threats come at a time when tempers are running high, with many demanding that everyone involved be held accountable, including the government, the unions and companies that some accuse of supporting breakaway unions to feed disunity among workers.
The powerful Congress of South African Trade Unions welcomed Radebe's move, saying it was "absolutely outraged" at the prosecutor's decision and that he should have waited for the findings of a judicial commission of inquiry tasked with uncovering the truth.
Like many among the leadership of the African National Congress, Radebe has his own ties to mines. His wife, Bridgette Radebe, and her brother, Patrice Motsepe, have become billionaires through their ownership of mines under a post-apartheid dispensation to share the country's wealth, including its vast mineral resources.
But only a small black elite has benefited, often through corruption, with the majority of South Africa's 48 million people becoming more mired in poverty and the gap between rich and poor widening.
Half of all workers in South Africa earn less than R3,000 ($375) a month with many supporting as many as eight people because of rampant unemployment, according to Department of Labor figures.
In an interview with the local Mail and Guardian newspaper, Zwelinzima Vavi, secretary general of the powerful Congress of South African Trade Unions, said the violence at the Lonmin mine did not catch them off guard.
"We have been warning about a ticking time bomb for years, saying that if we don't address the current levels of unemployment, poverty and inequalities at some point, the poor and those who are feeling the pinch will march to our own boardrooms to demand that we do something about their circumstances," he said.
This month's violence at the London-registered Lonmin PLC platinum mine was rooted in rivalry between an upstart union and the National Union of Mineworkers, the largest in the country led by leaders who support Zuma's bid for re-election as president of the ANC at a December congress. Miners accuse the NUM of being more concerned about politics and business than the shop-floor needs of miners who complain they do not earn enough to feed their families and send their children to school.
Lonmin has lost millions in share value since the illegal strike for higher wages began Aug. 10. It has said it probably will not be able to meet debt obligations due in a month.
Lonmin said only 5.7 percent of its work force reported Friday. It said there has been intimidation of workers and that most are probably awaiting the results of a peace accord being negotiated with the Department of Labor and trade unions.
The funerals of many of those killed are to take place this weekend.