It seemed liked a baffling decision which appeared to pile injustice upon injustice.
When 270 miners were charged with the murder of their colleagues, thought to have been shot dead by the police, it seemed, to many, that South Africa’s prosecuting authorities had slipped into a time warp.
As if the Marikana mine killings hadn’t already offered enough echoes of the dark past of apartheid. The shooting of 34 striking mine workers, two weeks ago, was the worst mass killing in South Africa since the end of white rule in 1994.
Politicians promised swift justice, and yesterday that process began - but it came with a surprising twist. The authorities dusted off an apartheid-era law in order to charge those miners who escaped the bullets of South African police officers. They may now be tried under the so-called “common purpose” doctrine, because they were thought to have been part of the crowd which attacked police officers before they opened fire on August 16.
The law was last used during the years of racial separation, and was then seen by many as a tool of repression – a way for the white-minority government to criminalise political activity amongst the majority-black population. Today, a spokesman for South Africa’s main trade union, which represents millions of workers, said that he was “absolutely outraged” by its use.
But prosecutors responded, saying that their decision was based upon sound legal advice.Tonight, the government seems to have acknowledged the bewilderment and anger of so many South Africans. Reflecting on the “sense of shock, panic and confusion”, the Justice Minister Jeff Radebe called for a report from the prosecuting authorities explaining their decision. It is yet another report for this struggling government to consider. Many have already been commissioned in order to explain how this tragedy happened, and they may offer President Zuma a selection of truths from which he may chose.
But he cannot escape the questions that might threaten his own survival: questions not just about what happened at Marikana, but how the authorities have managed the aftermath; questions about the purity of South African democracy; questions about inequality in the most unequal society in the world.Millions who felt failed by the state before Marikana have been left enraged ever since. Eighteen years after the birth of democracy, the massacre and its aftermath remind them that life for too many black people here is just not fair.