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South African backlash after miners charged with murder

Murder charges levelled by South African prosecutors against hundreds of miners this week are now being challenged. The government is under pressure over the affair, which many feel is reminiscent of apartheid justice.

South Africa's justice minister on Friday demanded answers from prosecutors who charged 270 miners with the murder of 34 of their colleagues after they were shot dead by police during a strike earlier this month, branding the ruling "bizarre".

"There is no doubt that the decision has induced a sense of shock, panic and confusion within the members of the community and the general South African public. It is therefore incumbent upon me to seek clarity," said Justice Minister Jedd Radebe.

The miners were charged on Thursday following a strike at the Marikana mine, owned by the company Lonmin, on August 16, in one of the worst confrontations with police that the country has witnessed since the end of white-minority rule in 1994.

The suspects have been charged under a law that originates from the apartheid era, which allowed prosecutors to deem that they had a “common purpose” in the murder of their colleagues.

Zuma under pressure

Jacob Zuma

Jacob Zuma has been criticized for neglecting South Africa's miners

The ruling African National Congress (ANC) has been heavily criticized for the move to charge the miners and President Jacob Zuma's opponents have accused him of neglecting his nation's mining community in order to nurture cosy relations with industry and influential labor groups. Zuma did not comment on the murder charges when he spoke at a congress of the Socialist International on Friday.

Zuma, who faces re-election as the ANC's leader in December, has struggled to make tangible progress with his major policies since he came to power in 2009. Unemployment in South Africa is climbing and corruption is seen to be getting worse. He has ordered an investigation into the responsibility of the police in the incident.

The company that owns the mine, Lonmin, which is the world's third biggest platinum producer, has also come under fire, along with the National Union of Miners (NUM) for failing to do enough to help the miners.

"I blame the management of the company. They are the ones who called out the police. NUM is too busy with politics to help us," said Lazarus Letsoelea, a striking miner.

The experts speak out

Legal experts now say that the charges against the striking workers are likely to collapse when a court hears the bail applications for those charged next week.

Political commentators across the country have also expressed their incredulity at the charges.

"Unless what we saw on our TV screens never happened or unless the [National Prosecutions Authority] is hiding shocking and bizarre conspiracy theory-type evidence from us that places the events we saw on television in an entirely different light, there could be no possible valid reason," wrote constitutional law expert Pierre de Vos in his blog Thursday.

Andrea Durbach, associate professor at Australia's University of New South Wales, has been similarly critical.

"It seems unthinkable that South Africa now with this fantastic new democracy and Bill of Rights, that the agents of the state are relying on the remnants of apartheid brutality," she said.

sej/pfd (AFP, Reuters)