You may remember the story from South Africa earlier this month in which police opened fire on a group of striking miners, killing more than 30 people. There’s an update to that story: South African authorities charged Thursday about 270 miners with the murder of their colleagues under a law that was commonly used during the apartheid era.
The BBC quoted an official as saying the workers would be tried under the “common purpose” doctrine because they were in the crowd that confronted police Aug. 16. South Africa’s Mail and Guardian newspaper said the doctrine “was used by former apartheid forces against black activists fighting against National Party rule.”
But National Prosecuting Authority spokesman Frank Lesenyego told The Associated Press defended the charges.
“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,” he told The Associated Press.
There was widespread criticism in the country over the deaths of the 34 miners.
The latest development has also prompted strong responses.
“The policemen who killed those people are not in custody, not even one of them. This is madness,” said Julius Malema, a politician who was expelled from the ruling African National Congress. “The whole world saw the policemen kill those people.”
The reaction from South African constitutional expert Pierre de Vos was similar. He called the decision “bizarre and shocking and represent[ing] 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,” according to the Mail and Guardian.
The AP says the decision “suggests President Jacob Zuma’s government wants to shift blame for the killings from police to the striking miners.”
Here’s more from the AP:
“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 shooting Aug. 16 erupted after police attempted to disperse striking workers at Marikana, the world’s third-largest platinum mine, about 40 miles northwest of Johannesburg. At the time, officials said the miners had fired at police.
Here’s more from the AP on the reason for the strike:
“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).”
The Aug. 16 incident was one of the worst in South Africa since the end of apartheid in the 1990s.