A GROUP of 259 miners arrested after violent clashes with police in South Africa last Thursday that left 34 of their colleagues dead appeared for the first time in court yesterday on criminal charges.
Trucks carrying the arrested mineworkers, who had been on strike outside a platinum mine in the North West Province when the clashes occurred, arrived at the Ga-Rankuwa magistrate’s court north of Pretoria at midday amid a heavy police presence.
Dozens of supporters and family members waited outside the courthouse calling for the men’s release when they arrived, but unlike last week at Lonmin’s Marikana platinum mine, there were no outbreaks of violence.
The cases against the men were postponed until next Monday to allow for further investigation into the incident, and the men will remain behind bars until then. They face charges ranging from murder and attempted murder to public violence.
Three policemen, two security guards and five other mine employees were also killed in the days leading up to last Thursday’s massacre, bringing the death toll to 44. At least 78 miners have also been injured.
The strike was sparked by a spreading battle for membership between the National Union of Mineworkers and the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union, which wanted to adopt more militant tactics. The striking miners wanted a pay increase from €400 a month to €1,250.
About 3,000 rock-drill operators were involved in the illegal strike that began on August 10th, and over the weekend the Lonmin mine owners gave them until yesterday to return to work. However, by early afternoon the company extended the deadline by another day.
“After consultations with various labour representatives today, the company can announce that those illegal strikers who did not return to work this morning will not be dismissed and have been allowed an extra day in light of current circumstances,” the platinum miner said in a statement.
“Lonmin agrees with all stakeholders involved that this is the right thing to do as all parties work together to help restore stability to both the mines and the region in the light of the tragic events of last week.”
Prior to the deadline extension, the Marikana mine, which accounts for 12 per cent of global platinum output, reported that 27 per cent of its employees had turned up for work. However, the miners have vowed to keep striking until their bosses engage with them, saying to give in now would be an insult to those killed by police.
In a significant show of defiance thousands of them took to the same hilltop yesterday where police opened fire on their colleagues last week. Although tensions were high, there were no reports of violence by late afternoon.
It has also come to light that many of the miners involved in the deadly clashes were seen by police conducting witchcraft rituals to protect themselves in the hours before they marched on the police positions with machetes, sticks and a few pistols.
The belief in magic potions can be strong among many African cultures, and it may go some way to explaining why the miners appeared unafraid to attack the heavily armed police who warned them to stop. On Sunday South African president Jacob Zuma said there would be a week of mourning to mark the tragedy, and a memorial service for those killed would be held on Thursday. A judicial commission of inquiry will also be established to investigate the incident. In addition, parliament will convene a national assembly sitting today to discuss the shooting.