Some 270 miners were charged Thursday with the murders of 34 striking colleagues who were shot and killed by South African police officers, authorities said, a development that could further infuriate South Africans already shocked and angered by the police action.
The decision to charge the miners comes under an arcane Roman-Dutch common cause law, and it suggests President Jacob Zuma’s government wants to shift blame for the killings from police to the striking miners.
National Prosecuting Authority spokesman Frank Lesenyego told The Associated Press that “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.
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 violent strike, apparently rooted in rivalry between two trade unions, had rock drill operators demanding a minimum wage of R12,500 ($1,560) and complaining that their take-home pay was only about R5,500 ($688).
On Aug. 16, police said they had failed to persuade the strikers to disarm and that it was “D-Day” to end the strike at the London-registered Lonmin PLC platinum mine. That afternoon, striking miners armed with clubs, machetes and at least one gun allegedly charged at police, who opened fire, killing 34 and wounding at least 78.
Some survivors said many of the miners were fleeing police tear gas and water cannons when they were shot.
Dlamini has refused to comment on local news reports that autopsies show many of those killed were shot in the back.
Police Commissioner Gen. Riah Phiyega has been criticized for saying her officers “did nothing wrong.” She said they acted in self-defense, using live bullets only after they were fired upon and had failed to stop a charge of miners with water cannons, stun grenades, tear gas and rubber bullets.
Prosecution spokesman Lesenyego said the 270 miners were charged under Roman-Dutch law that held sway in South Africa before a new liberal constitution was adopted after apartheid ended in 1994. He said it was case law, meaning it has been used in previous cases and that there is legal precedent even though it is not in the constitution.
The police killings were the worst public display of state-sponsored violence since apartheid was overthrown and have traumatized a nation that hoped it had seen the last of such scenes.