The South African government is reversing its decision to charge 270 striking miners for the murder of their colleagues. Sort of.
The BBC is reporting the charges are being provisionally dropped. However, prosecutors say they cannot completely dismiss the murder charges formally until the end of the inquiry into the situation. This means the miners could still be charged with murder under the apartheid-era “common purpose” law. Until the inquiry is finished, the miners are being released from prison.
The decision to provisionally drop murder charges has done nothing to ease public dismay at the situation. After all, the decision to invoke the “common purpose” law lays the blame for the deaths of 34 miners on the shoulders of their peers, not the police officers who actually shot them.
The logic is that when about 3,000 miners went on strike two weeks ago, the police were provoked into using deadly force to keep things from getting out of hand. They felt threatened, according to police, because the strikers were wielding machetes.
Here’s how CNN describes the incident:
Police spokesman Dennis Adrio said that some of those killed in the clash had gunshot wounds in their backs and that weapons were recovered at the scene.
The fatal incident occurred after negotiations between striking miners and mining company Lonmin broke down and police decided to fence in the machete-armed miners with barbed wire, police said.
The protesting miners moved toward police and were driven back with tear gas and rubber bullets. Police said they resorted to live ammunition when protesters attacked, leaving 34 people dead and 78 others wounded.
No police officers have been charged with the deaths pending a judicial inquiry and internal police review, which could take months.
It’s still not clear why prosecutors decided to invoke “common purpose” law. The doctrine was employed during the apartheid years to crack down on black opponents of the minority-white ruling party. Applying it to the current situation seems to highlight the growing tensions in South Africa over increased income disparity and high rates of unemployment.
In the meantime, negotiations between the miners’ labor unions and the mine operators, Lonmin, are still underway. The platinum mine, which is about two hours northwest of Johannesburg, has been closed for the past three weeks.