This week, the Marikana massacre took another, extraordinary twist. The events which saw 34 miners mown down by automatic fire from the police is already, by common consent, a turning point in post-apartheid South Africa. On Thursday the 270 miners currently being held by the police were charged with the murder of their 34 comrades . “Officially the 270 accused were charged with murder,” National Prosecuting Authority spokesman Frank Lesenyego told local journalists. “To confirm, the charges against all 270 are murder and attempted murder,” he said.
It is a supreme irony that a government led by the ANC should even consider turning to what are termed ‘common purpose’ clauses in the Riotous Assembly Act. These were the very laws that sent their comrades to the gallows. Pierre de Vos, the Constitutional law expert at the University of Cape Town described the charges  as “bizarre and shocking and represent a flagrant abuse of the criminal justice system in an effort to protect the police and/or politicians like Jacob Zuma.”
Fortunately the Minister of Justice, Jeff Radebe, has intervened , calling on the state prosecutor to explain why he had laid the charges. “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,” Mr Radebe admitted.
While confusion reigns in the state’s approach to Marikana, others have reached firm conclusions. A careful re-construction of the events around the Lonmin mine by the Pulitzer prize winning journalist Greg Marinovich indicated that most miners were not shot while charging at police lines. Rather, they died amid a maze of boulders on another hillock, Small Koppie, apparently shot at close quarters . Others were crushed when they were driven over by police armoured cars.
He quotes one of the surviving miners as saying: “When one of our miners passed a Nyala (armoured car), there was a homeboy (local man) of his from the Eastern Cape inside, and he told him that today was D-day, that they were to come and shoot. He said there was a paper signed allowing them to shoot us.”
This narrative – of a premeditated attempt by the police to confront and kill the defiant miners, who were armed with spears, machetes and a few stolen pistols – was reinforced at a seminar on Thursday at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg. Professor Peter Alexander, who has been investigating the events said evidence from interviews with the miners was that at least 14 died on Small Koppie . From this position they could have been no threat to the police. “I have very little doubt in my own mind that this was straight-forward murder,” Professor Alexander concluded.
South African journalists are not all convinced. Phillip de Wet, deputy editor of the country’s most respected left-wing newspaper, the Mail & Guardian, was at Marikana when the shooting took place. He believes the evidence can be read to reach other conclusions . De Wet points out that the forensic evidence is not yet available, that the eye-witness accounts could have been embroidered and that the police have yet to make their case. “Could a striker armed with a handgun and holed up among the rocks of the koppie, hostile either in fear or panic or because he believed in protective muti, been shot at and killed before he could fire in return,” he asks.
While the tragedy has been played out in the media, the miners and Lonmin have been holding a series of meetings in an attempt to reach a settlement to their wage dispute. At the same time President Zuma is struggling to gain control of the crisis. He has asked that no one jumps to conclusions about what took place . “Today is not an occasion for blame, finger-pointing or recrimination,” the president declared, when he announced an inquiry into the shooting.
Kicking troublesome situations into the long grass with a Commission of Inquiry might be a convenient political ploy under other circumstances, but it fails to address the urgency of the issue. The former Minister of Intelligence, Ronnie Kasrils, an ANC and Communist Party stalwart, rejected Zuma’s ‘no finger-pointing’ injunction . “In a democracy that has sworn to make such massacres a thing of the past we need to cry out in the name of humanity and justice and demand full transparency and accountability,” he wrote.
Kasrils believes it will be too easy to blame the policemen who opened fire, letting those in authority off the hook. “If we do not point fingers at the right targets, the politicians — who bear executive authority for those who may have given some kind of green light, or by dereliction of responsibility left the police to their own devices — will go unscathed.”
It may be that Marikana points to another, even more disturbing conclusion. Dr Saths Cooper, president of the International Union of Psychological Science, argues that the killings need to be seen against the background of brutality and violence that scars all levels of South African society . From rape to infanticide and inequality, the country tops global charts. “All of this is while we are not at war. But we are at war with ourselves,” Dr Cooper points out.
Martin Plaut is the Africa Editor of BBC World Service News. Who Rules South Africa? by Martin Plaut and Paul Holden is published by Biteback Publishing.