Rodger Bosch / AFP - Getty Images
A group of men carry on Friday the coffin containing the body of Mpuzeni Ngxande, one of the 34 striking miners killed by police fire on Aug. 16, in front of the informal settlement near the Lonmin mine in Marikana where the workers were shot.
JOHANNESBURG -- South African authorities on Thursday invoked a legal move seldom used since the dying days of apartheid in order to charge 270 striking miners with the murder of 34 co-workers who were seen being shot dead in a hail of police bullets earlier this month.
Prosecutors have filed papers using a measure called "common purpose", arguing the miners were complicit in the killings since they were arrested at the scene with weapons.
Legal experts said the move will likely collapse when a court hearing bail applications for the 270 near the mine resumes sessions next week and lambasted prosecutors for inflaming a tense situation by seeking a mass indictment that will eventually be rejected.
Pierre de Vos, a law expert at the University of Cape Town, wrote in a blog that the decision to charge the miners was "bizarre and shocking and represents a flagrant abuse of the criminal justice system, most probably in an effort to protect the police and/or politicians ..."
Eighteen years after the country's first free and fair elections, the decision to charge the miners is raising questions about the direction of South Africa's democracy and the rights of the poor in the world's most unequal country.
"The apartheid state often used this provision to secure a criminal conviction against one or more of the leaders of a protest march, or against leaders of struggle organizations like the ANC," de Vos wrote in reference to the African National Congress, which was then a guerilla group in opposition to the apartheid regime but which is now the ruling party.
Pressure on Zuma
President Jacob Zuma and the ANC have faced increasing pressure over the killings, which are the deadliest security incident since apartheid ended in 1994, with many saying the government may be more concerned about protecting its own than miners in shafts.
The government has launched a probe into the killings, including the deaths of 10 people ahead of the Aug 16 shooting at Lonmin's Marikana mine, northwest of Johannesburg.
Memorial services will be held for the 34 South African platinum miners gunned down by police last week. The country's embattled President Jacob Zuma visited the mine, promising a full judicial enquiry while reassuring international investors that South Africa was open for business. But the price of platinum on world markets surged - as reports suggested strikes were spreading to other mines. Inigo Gilmore, Channel 4 Europe reports.
It is withholding any police punishment until the investigation is over, which is estimated to be sometime in early 2013.
But after heavy criticism in the South African media, the government appears to be attempting to distance itself from the decision to charge the miners.
On Friday, Justice Minister Jeff Radebe said the National Prosecutions Authority (NPA) must explain why the murder charges were brought.
"There is no doubt that 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. It is therefore incumbent upon me to seek clarity on the basis upon which such a decision is taken," Radebe said.
The Independent Police Investigative Directorate, a government watchdog, said it had received nearly 200 complaints from the arrested miners of being assaulted and abused while in custody.
Patrick Craven, National Spokesperson for the Congress of South African Trade Unions said his organization was "absolutely outraged at the decision."
After a violet pay dispute left 34 dead and 78 injured in South Africa, Police say they were "forced to use maximum force to defend themselves." ITN's Neil Connery reports.
He said prosecutors "should have waited for the findings of the Judicial Commission of Inquiry ... before jumping the gun and laying such charges. It is showing its contempt for the Inquiry and potentially jeopardizing its independence and relevance by pre-judging the arrested workers on the basis of their own version of the facts."
Craven added that his confederation of unions "also restates its concern over the allegations about the bad conditions in which the accused workers are being held in custody and demands that they should be released on bail immediately."
Zuma’s government may find it difficult to escape criticism over the killings.
A commentary by Nic Dawes, editor of Johannesburg’s influential Mail and Guardian newspaper, argues that the aftermath of the massacres poses political dangers to the ANC.
"What will happen when the ANC and its trade union allies are no longer unquestioningly accepted as the sole legitimate representatives of poor? When the store of liberation credit has been drawn down so far that it can no longer stand surety for 'a better life' that arrives too incrementally and too unequally?" Dawes asked in the article.
"The killings at Marikana and their political aftermath may at last force us to confront the real consequences of declining alliance credibility," he wrote.
Fewer than 7 percent of Lonmin's 28,000-strong South African workforce reported for duty on Thursday as the platinum producer held talks with warring unions, attempting to cool tensions and bring people back to work.
The world's third-largest platinum producer has been forced to shut its mining operations for almost three weeks because of a violent turf war between the established National Union of Mineworkers and militant Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union, which led to the deaths of 44 people this month.
"We have a 6.6 percent average attendance across all shafts this morning," Lonmin said in a statement.
The talks to end the impasse in the platinum mining city of Rustenburg, northwest of Johannesburg, resumed Thursday after dragging into the night on Wednesday.
Officials in South Africa confirmed today that 34 people were killed and 78 injured when police opened fire on striking uranium miners and supporters they allege charged at them. TODAY's Natalie Morales reports.
Gideon du Plessis, deputy secretary general of trade union Solidarity, said discussions are to secure "a return to work agreement -- with the aim of getting workers back to work on Monday after most funerals have been concluded."
He said the grievances raised by the striking workers would then be dealt with and, finally, a peace accord would be reached.
Solidarity represents skilled workers, and its members have not been on strike, but all unions are taking part in the talks.
The 3,000 strikers who have brought things to a standstill are mostly rock driller operators, who demand a monthly wage of 12,500 rand ($1,500), which would amount to a hike of more than 25 percent over what the company says it currently pays, excluding bonuses.
Lonmin accounts for 12 percent of the global output of platinum, used in car catalytic converters and jewelry.
Reuters contributed to this report.
More world stories from NBC News:
- Assad stays cool amid reports of bread-line slaughter
- Ex-Marine on her journey from homelessness to the Paralympics
- Red Cross halts most Pakistan aid in wake of beheading
- Unexploded WWII bomb disrupts Amsterdam airport
- Pakistani Christians live in fear after girl's blasphemy arrest
- 'A less polar pole': Arctic sea ice at record low
- Botched restoration turns Spanish church into tourist attraction