Marikana mine strike: South Africa court frees miners

The BBC's Nomsa Maseko reports on the release of the jubilant miners

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About 50 South African miners have been freed after murder charges against them, relating to the deaths of 34 miners shot by police, were dropped.

Prosecutors decided to provisionally set aside charges against 270 striking workers from the Marikana mine following a public outcry.

The miners will be released in batches with no bail requirements.

Earlier, security guards wounded four people with rubber bullets at a mine near Johannesburg, police said.

The Marikana group released on Monday is due back in court in February next year to face charges of public violence and holding an illegal gathering.

Analysis

The Marikana story is not only a tragic incident where mineworkers senselessly lost their lives, but it is also developing into one of the worst cases of bungling by the prosecution since white minority rule ended in 1994.

No prosecuting authority in its right mind could have instituted murder charges against 270 mineworkers for the killing of 34 of their colleagues by police. This has fuelled speculation that the National Prosecution Authority (NPA) must have been under political influence to institute the charges. What makes the picture even murkier is its subsequent decision to withdraw the charges.

Marikana is playing out at a sensitive moment for the ruling African National Congress party, as it is gearing towards its December conference, when it elects its leaders.

The crisis will be used by President Jacob Zuma's critics as further evidence of the need to replace him, but it is unlikely to jeopardise his chances of winning a second term. The political storm may well be drawing to an end.

On Sunday, the prosecution announced the murder charges would be suspended until the outcome of a judge-led inquiry into the events of 16 August at the Lonmin-owned Marikana platinum mine.

The charges, levelled under a controversial apartheid-era law to accuse the miners of provoking police to open fire, were suspended after widespread condemnation.

The "common purpose" doctrine was used by the white-minority apartheid regime to crack down on its black opponents, and at the time was opposed by the now governing African National Congress (ANC).

Those whose addresses were verified by police were being released on Monday, while the rest would remain in custody until their next court appearance this week, the prosecution said.

Police said they opened fire on the strikers at Marikana after being threatened by a crowd of protesters who advanced towards them, armed with machetes.

The 270 miners, six of whom remain in hospital, were arrested during the protests.

Miners were demanding a huge pay rise and recognition of a new union.

Talks are continuing to resolve the dispute, which has shut the mine for the past three weeks.

Mine shooting

In Monday's shooting, police spokesman Johannes Ramphora said security guards fired rubber bullets to break up a scuffle between striking and non-striking workers at the Gold One mine.

The chief executive of Gold One, Neal Froneman, says the four who were injured have now been discharged from hospital.

He said they were former employees of the mine, who had been sacked after an illegal strike in June.

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

They had blockaded the entrance to the mine and prevented half of the mine's workforce of 500 from getting in, he added.

Some of the strikers had tried to attack the occupants of a taxi approaching the mine, and so the security staff fired the rubber bullets, Mr Froneman said.

The South African Police Service then fired tear gas and rubber bullets to disperse the group, said Gold One.

Gold production has been affected, but most of the 500 workers are now back at the mine.

Miners have been involved in a long-running pay dispute with the company.

Unrest is spreading across South African mines, with 12,000 miners at the Gold Fields company mine west of Johannesburg downing tools in an unofficial strike.

The company blamed in-fighting within the officially recognised mineworkers' union, which is facing a challenge from a more radical new union.

The mine workers, like the Lonmin miners at Marikana, are demanding wages of no less than 12,500 rand ($1,500; £1,000) a month.

Militant youth leader Julius Malema addressed gold miners last week, calling on them to make it "ungovernable" until their demands for higher wages were met.

"Marikana is a true reflection of what SA [mineworkers] go through. Honour them by demanding what you deserve," Mr Malema said.

Mr Malema has built a steady following among the miners since the Marikana killings because he was one of the first high-profile people to address miners during the strike, while the government was seen as turning a blind eye, says the BBC's Pumza Fihlani in Johannesburg.

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