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More than 200 striking platinum miners who were arrested after police shot and killed 34 of their colleagues and wounded another 78 near the Marikana mine complex have been charged with murder, a prosecution official said.
The charges fall under a South African law known as “common purpose”, which relates to incidents that involve armed people clashing with police or others and results in fatalities. But the decision to use the charges is likely to raise anger among the mine workers and risks inflaming an already tense situation in the wake of the worst episode of security force-related bloodshed since the end of apartheid 18 years ago.
Dozens of people protested outside the court calling for the miners’ immediate release.
Frank Lesenyego, a spokesman for the National Prosecution Authority in North West Province, where the violence took place, said all 270 strikers detained had been charged with 34 counts of murder. He declined to give further details.
The violence erupted on August 16 when police moved in to disperse striking platinum miners employed by Lonmin, the London-listed group. Television footage of the incident showed police lining up and opening fire on the protesters, shocking the nation and triggering headlines of “massacre”.
The strikers were armed with traditional weapons such as machetes, spears and wooden clubs and say police opened fire on them indiscriminately.
But after the fatal shooting, Riah Phiyega, the national police commissioner, said shots were fired from among the strikers, adding that police were forced to fire in self-defence as a mob charged towards them.
Ten people, including two policemen hacked to death, were killed days earlier in violence related to the strike.
Jacob Zuma, the president, has set up a judicial commission of inquiry to probe the violence, but it will be more than four months before it reports its findings.
Separately, the Independent Police Investigative Directorate, a police watchdog, is probing the actions of under-fire police, including investigations into 34 counts of murder, 32 counts of attempted murder and allegations that workers arrested have been abused while in custody.
The wild-cat strike at Lonmin is in its third week and has forced the company to halt its operations in South Africa. The industrial strife began when some 3,000 rock drill operators downed their tools to demand a salary of R12,500 a month. They currently earn a basic monthly salary of R5,405, which rises to about R9,800 with benefits such as health, pension and housing allowances.
The company is holding talks with unions, mediated by government officials, in an effort to find a solution to the crisis. On Thursday, only about 7 per cent of Lonmin’s 28,000 employees turned up for work.