NPA buckles under Marikana pressure

03 September 2012 - 02:07 By SIPHO MASOMBUKA

The National Prosecuting Authority buckled under pressure yesterday, provisionally withdrawing controversial murder charges against 270 Lonmin mineworkers.

Amid intensifying criticism, including from ANC treasurer-general Mathews Phosa, and threats of an urgent high court application for an order compelling President Jacob Zuma to release the miners by lunch time yesterday, NPA acting head Nomgcobo Jiba announced that the workers would be released this week.

The miners have been behind bars for more than two weeks after 34 of their colleagues were killed in a hail of police bullets.

They were initially charged with public violence. Murder charges under the common purpose doctrine were added later.

Jiba, without going into detail, revealed that she had overruled a decision by North West director of public prosecutions Johan Smit to collectively charge the miners with the murder of their colleagues.

Her decision, she said, was based on various concerns raised through prosecuting channels and the threat by the miners' lawyers to go to court today.

The decision was, ironically made on the day Phosa warned that charging the miners with murder could lead to another Marikana massacre.

On Friday, Justice Minister Jeff Radebe demanded answers "explaining the rationale behind such a decision".

Expelled ANC Youth League leader Julius Malema, who has been vocal in supporting the miners, and who decried "police brutality", on Thursday described the murder charges as "madness", saying that the policemen who fired on the miners should be charged instead.

Friends of the ANC Youth League, which is associated with Malema, blamed the Lonmin tragedy on the ANC leadership.

Floyd Shivambu, who is linked to the group, said: "If there were leadership in South Africa the lengthy, unreasoned, horrible and inhumane imprisonment of the mineworkers who survived the massacre would have been avoided."

The group has vowed to stand behind the workers, who continue to demand higher wages.

But, as acting head of the NPA Jiba said, she has the power to review decisions taken by her provincial directors.

On Friday, Radebe said: "There is no doubt that the NPA's decision has induced a sense of shock, panic and confusion within the members of the community and the general South African public."

Jiba revealed that she, after receiving several expressions of concern, sent a team to observe court proceedings and study a report by North West director of public prosecutions Smit.

"I also received a copy of representations addressed to the president by the attorneys representing the accused ... on Friday," Jiba said.

It was during a meeting with NPA leaders on Saturday that she decided to provisionally withdraw the murder charges.

Hours before Jiba's announcement, Lesego Mmusi, the miners' advocate, said the drafting of the application for a court order compelling Zuma to release the miners was almost complete and would be filed either last night or this morning.

After Jiba's announcement, Mmusi said: "We have not heard anything [official] from the NPA and we cannot decide [on] the court papers on the basis of media statements. We have to work according to what we have.

"We received a letter from the presidency [saying that Zuma would not accede to demands for the release of the miners] and we expect the same from the NPA. We can only comment once there is something official."

The decision was widely welcomed, with the ANC saying it would allow the commission of inquiry appointed by Zuma to investigate the massacre and the police to continue with their investigations.

"It is our expectation that at the end of the investigation the outcome will be implemented fully without fear or favour," ANC spokesman Jackson Mthembu said.

The central committee of the National Union of Mineworkers has called for the suspension of the policemen "that executed the Marikana massacre".

It called on the judicial commission of inquiry to find out, and make public, who gave the order to shoot at the workers with live ammunition .

The union's general secretary, Irvin Jim, said the police's action confirmed that post-1994 South Africa had not been transformed and the methods of the apartheid state and its violent machinery banished.

Jiba said the miners would be released in batches, starting today with those whose address could be verified. The rest will remain in custody until their next court appearance, on Thursday.

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