Marikana strike: South Africa to release unrest miners

Nomgcobo Jiba: "The accused will be released conditionally, pending investigations"

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South African courts are to begin releasing 270 striking miners charged with murder after 34 of their colleagues were shot dead by police.

Earlier, the charges, levelled under an apartheid-era law, were suspended following a national outcry.

The first 100 miners will be freed on Monday, and the rest on Thursday.

Also on Monday, talks are set to resume on ending the strike that led to killing of the 34 workers at the Marikana platinum mine.

Police says they opened fire on the strikers in self-defence after being threatened by a crowd of protesters who advanced towards them, armed with machetes.

The strike, called in support of demands for a substantial pay rise and recognition of a new union, continues and the mine remains closed three weeks on.

The mine's owner, Lonmin, the world's third-largest platinum producer, says the industrial action is illegal.

Analysis

By suspending the charges, state prosecutors have helped President Jacob Zuma salvage some of his credibility.

He has been under heavy criticism over what has been dubbed the "Marikana massacre".

Militant youth leader Julius Malema demanded his resignation, comparing his government to that of the apartheid regime.

Mr Zuma's allies denounced Mr Malema - under investigation on fraud and tax avoidance charges - as a maverick and an opportunist.

But there is no doubt that the Marikana killings have damaged Mr Zuma, ahead of the ruling African National Congress (ANC) December conference, which decides whether he remains party leader.

And it has strengthened the hand of his opponents, who are lobbying his deputy, Kgalema Motlanthe, to contest the party's leadership.

Mr Motlanthe is yet to declare his intentions, but there is no doubt that Mr Zuma's presidency is in deep trouble.

But it has dropped its demands that the strikers go back to work or face the sack.

After the shootings, state prosecutors invoked the apartheid-era "common purpose" doctrine to charge the 270 miners arrested during the violence with provoking police to open fire.

The rule was used by the white-minority apartheid regime to crack down on its black opponents, at the time mainly represented by the African National Congress, which is now in power.

Outcry

On Sunday, the acting national director of prosecutions, Nomgcobo Jiba, held a news conference to announce the charges would be provisionally dropped

She added, however, that the charges cannot be dismissed formally until the end of the inquiry.

Those whose addresses have been verified by police will be released on Monday, and the rest will remain in custody until their next court appearance on Thursday, Ms Jiba said.

The decision to charge the men had drawn condemnation from political parties, trade unions, activists and legal experts.

On Friday, Justice Minister Jeff Radebe demanded a report from state prosecutors to explain the reasoning behind it.

Marikana mine violence

A policeman (R) fires at protesting miners outside a South African mine, 16 August
  • 10 Aug: Some 3,000 workers launch a wildcat strike; three days of clashes kill 10, including two police officers
  • 16 Aug: Police open fire on miners, killing 34 and injuring 78; 270 workers are arrested
  • 30 Aug: State authorities charge all 270 arrested miners with murder under apartheid-era "common purpose" rule
  • 2 Sep: Charges are provisionally dropped after a national outcry

BBC South Africa analyst Farouk Chothia says the move to shelve the charges has salvaged some of the government's credibility.

But he says the government will have to make sure that the miners co-operate with the judge-led commission of inquiry that was set up by Mr Zuma to investigate the 16 August shootings.

South African media reports suggest some of the mine workers have decided to hold their own inquiry into the killings, which would create more embarrassment for Mr Zuma, says our correspondent.

On Saturday, the arrested miners' lawyers asked President Jacob Zuma to free the men, but he issued a statement saying he would not intervene in the case.

The violence at the mine, near Rustenburg, about 80km north-east of Johannesburg, reminded many of the apartheid-era treatment of opposition protesters.

No police officers have been charged over the deaths because a judicial inquiry and an internal police review are under way, but these are expected to take several months to complete.

The strike turned violent before the police shooting, with the deaths of 10 people including two police officers and two security guards who were hacked to death.

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