By Jon Herskovitz
JOHANNESBURG (Reuters) - South Africa's justice minister on Friday rebuked prosecutors for charging 270 miners with the murder of 34 striking colleagues shot dead by police, saying the decision had caused "shock, panic and confusion" among the general public.
The police killing of the strikers at the Marikana mine this month was one of the worst such incidents since the end of white rule in 1994. The arrested miners have been charged under a law dating from the apartheid era under which they are deemed to have had a "common purpose" in the murder of their co-workers.
The African National Congress, whose members used to be gunned down by apartheid police at protest rallies and targeted with draconian laws, has been severely criticized for using similar tactics now that it is in power.
President Jacob Zuma has seen his support erode, with his enemies saying he is more interested in getting close to industry and powerful labor groups than miners working deep underground.
Zuma, speaking at a congress of the Socialist International on Friday, did not comment on the murder charges. His justice minister, Jeff Radebe, wanted answers.
"There is no doubt that the decision has induced a sense of shock, panic and confusion within the members of the community and the general South African public. It is therefore incumbent upon me to seek clarity," he said in a statement.
Prosecutors on Thursday charged the 270 miners, already under arrest on suspicion of murder in a earlier shooting at the mine, with the August 16 murder of 34 co-workers at the Marikana mine of the world's third biggest platinum producer, Lonmin, using the "common purpose" law.
The 34 were shot in a hail of police bullets in what has been dubbed the "Marikana Massacre" with videos of the killings broadcast worldwide. Police will not be subject to punishment until the conclusion of a government probe early next year.
Common purpose was often used by the apartheid government against blacks to sentence numerous people for crimes committed by only a few.
Mosiuoa Lekota, a former ANC cabinet minister and now leader of the COPE opposition party, was imprisoned during apartheid in a case where the common purpose doctrine was invoked. He said the decision to charge the miners was a setback for democracy.
MANAGING THE 'MASSACRE'
Zuma is facing re-election as the ANC's leader in December and poor management of the shooting would strengthen his opponents who see him as running an ineffectual government.
Zuma has ordered an investigation into the responsibility of police, Lonmin and the feuding unions that caused the strike at Marikana. The panel's report is due a month after the ANC vote.
Zuma has made little progress on his main policies since taking office in 2009, with unemployment increasing, corruption perceived to be getting worse and the gap between rich and poor - already among the worst in the world - growing wider.
Many striking miners have avoided pointing fingers at Zuma so far, preferring to criticize Lonmin and the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) for not doing enough to help them.
"I blame the management of the company. They are the ones who called out the police. NUM is too busy with politics to help us," said Lazarus Letsoele, a striking miner.
But trouble with the NUM could taint Zuma and the ANC, where many of the union's former leaders have taken up senior positions in the ruling party.
Legal experts said the charges will likely collapse when a court hears bail applications for the 270 next week. They see the move as a clumsy tactic to prolong the miners' incarceration that is only making an already tense situation worse.
Police are facing pressure on a related front. The Independent Police Investigative Directorate, a government watchdog, said it had received nearly 200 complaints from the arrested miners of being assaulted and abused while in custody.
Prosecutors said they invoked the "common purpose" measure because the miners were at the scene with weapons and therefore complicit in the killings. Members of the government's Human Rights Commission questioned if prosecutors knew the law.
"It seems unthinkable that South Africa now with this fantastic new democracy and Bill of Rights, that the agents of the state are relying the remnants of apartheid brutality," said Andrea Durbach, associate professor at Australia's University of New South Wales.
(Additional reporting by Ed Stoddard and Peroshni Govender; Editing by Giles Elgood)