By Devon Maylie
JOHANNESBURG-South Africa's decision to level murder charges against 270 platinum miners-even though the shots that left 34 of their protesting colleagues dead were fired by police-has opened a sharp debate between state prosecutors and their traditional allies in the country's government.
On Friday, South African Minister of Justice Jeff Radebe demanded an explanation from the state prosecutor and a report on the body's decision to charge striking workers with their fellow protesters' murders during an Aug. 16 police shooting at Lonmin PLC's Marikana platinum mine.
The charges-based on the so-called common purpose doctrine, which had been used to stifle dissent during apartheid-have caused "shock, panic and confusion," Mr. Radebe said.
South Africa's prosecuting authorities hit back. The decision to charge the miners with murder, attempted murder and public violence, among others, was based on "sufficient" evidence, said Johan Smit, the director of public prosecution in the North West province, where the mine is located. He didn't elaborate.
The prosecutor's national overseer backed his decision. "Co-perpetrators may be held liable for the death of members of their group or of others where there is enough evidence of foreseeing that death may result as a consequence of their collective action," the National Prosecuting Authority said Friday.
Violence that grew out of the Lonmin strike threatens to spill over, worrying mine owners and union leaders alike.
South Africa's second-largest gold producer, Gold Fields Ltd., said Friday it has been hit by a 12,000-person strike that has shut part of its KDC mine since Wednesday night. Two day shifts and two night shifts have been lost in the wildcat strike since Wednesday night, it said.
Gold Fields said striking workers haven't made official demands. But based on its communications with some employees, it said, it believes workers may be seeking new union leadership, similar to what has happened at Marikana between established and emerging trade unions.
In the past two weeks, illegal strikes have also erupted at Anglo American Platinum Ltd.'s Thembelani mine, when several hundred workers refused to go underground, and one at a mine belonging to Royal Bafokeng Platinum Ltd., which briefly halted operations.
The nature of the allegations against the Lonmin miners risks inflaming tensions in a country that is still coming to terms with images of police firing live ammunition into a crowd of oncoming protesters.
"We are all surprised and confused by the National Prosecuting Authority's legal strategy, said a spokesman for Mathole Motshekga, the African National Congress's chief whip in parliament. "The NPA's explanation to the minister will assist all of us to understand how the arrested miners should legally shoulder the sole responsibility for the tragedy that befell the Marikana community and the nation."
"This is politically insensitive," said Peter Leon, a lawyer specializing in mineral resources at Webber Wentzel in Johannesburg. He argued that the law says those charged must have shown intent to murder.
The president of the upstart mining union whose members were among those arrested at Lonmin said he was perplexed by the charges based on the common purpose law. "Those who participated in the killing are still walking free outside," President Joseph Mathunjwa of the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union said, referring to the police.
The lawyer for the arrested protesters, Lesego Mmusi, said he believes the murder charges are a strategy to delay the proceedings.
While the law was abused under apartheid, it was upheld in a 2003 constitution court case, said James Grant, a senior lecturer on criminal law at Wits University in Johannesburg. The law continues to be used in 10 to 20 cases each year, he said. "It gets used in mob-type situations where there hasn't been a previous agreement to commit a crime," Mr. Grant said.
The Lonmin strike began Aug. 10 when 3,000 rock drillers refused to go underground without a wage increase. Fighting among workers left 10 people dead, including two police officers in the days that followed. Then, on Aug. 16, police say they gave their last of several warnings before cordoning their camp off with barbed wire. Police say a group of protesters charged at them and they responded with rubber bullets and water cannons but that failed to repel them. They then resorted to live ammunition, police say.
Many miners say they were cornered on the hill and that several of those killed were shot in the back. Police say their investigation continues.
South Africa's largest federation of unions, Congress of South African Trade Unions, said the prosecutor's murder charges were an act of intimidation against those imprisoned. It Is worried that many of those arrested have been mistreated in custody. The Independent Police Investigative Directorate is investigating those charges.
Lonmin said so far the mood at its mine has been calm since the murder charges were laid, with many families traveling away for funerals this weekend.
Write to Devon Maylie at email@example.com