State prosecutors have charged 270 strikers arrested at Marikana platinum mine with the murder of 34 colleagues. The arrests went ahead despite confirmation that the victims were shot dead by police, in the latest setback to prospects of peace in the South African mining industry.
The strike at Marikana that called for 3,000 rock drillers to have their monthly pay increased to 12,500 rand (£940) has led to a total of 44 deaths, including those of two policemen and two security guards. In shocking scenes on 16 August, police opened fire on a group of miners, killing 34 and injuring 78.
Lawyers acting for the detained men yesterday appeared for a third day at Ga-Rankuwa magistrate's court to argue for them to be released on bail, after it emerged that state prosecutor Nigel Carpenter had increased the charges against the men from attempted murder and public violence to murder. Meanwhile, government mediators yesterday met representatives from the mine owner, Lonmin, and four trade unions in an attempt to sign a peace accord as a precursor to wage talks. The Marikana mine was at a standstill with only 7.7 per cent of employees reporting for work – the lowest figure since the strike began on 10 August.
National Prosecution Agency spokesman Frank Lesenyego was unsurprised at the state's move to charge the men with the murder of their colleagues, even though the police c ommissioner Riah Phiyega had previously confirmed they were killed by officers.
Mr Lesenyego said the move was a legal technicality: "In a situation where there are suspects that confront members of the South African Police Service (Saps) and a shooting takes place resulting in the fatalities of either Saps or the suspects those who get arrested, irrespective of whether they shot police members or the police shot them, are charged with murder." Mr Carpenter had earlier told the court that police had not yet verified the men's addresses and that therefore they could not be released on bail. He also argued that "weapons were stolen [from police] but not recovered" and there was a danger of evidence being lost.
Lawyers acting for the Marikana strikers are expected to challenge the new charges, as well as a slew of procedural incongruities, including a decision by the prosecutor to allow only a limited number of the defendants – who are being held at half a dozen police stations– to appear in court.
Mr Carpenter said the Ga-Rankuwa court did not have the capacity to contain the 270 accused in a single session and the men who appeared in court would inform their colleagues of what transpired. Defence lawyer Lesego Mmusi said the arrangement – which allows only about 25 defendants to appear in one sitting – was an infringement of the detained men's right to a fair trial: "How is it a fair trial when your bail application is being heard in court and you are not there?"
Mr Mmusi said two of the detained men had gunshot wounds and were not receiving treatment. He argued that all the men should be released on bail as some need medication. Another lawyer for the men, Simon Hlahla, said several of the arrested men had been assaulted in custody by police, who appeared obsessed with finding the killers of the two officers who died on 14 August.
On Monday, the South African Star newspaper published details leaked from the post-mortem reports of the 34 men who were shot dead. According to the report, in the majority of cases, the bullet exited the body through the chest, suggesting the men were shot in the back while running away.