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A policeman fires at protesting miners outside a South African mine in Rustenburg, 100 kilometres north-west of Johannesburg. Nearly three dozen miners were killed in the bloodiest incident of state violence since the days of apartheid. Siphiwe Sibeko / Reuters
A policeman fires at protesting miners outside a South African mine in Rustenburg, 100 kilometres north-west of Johannesburg. Nearly three dozen miners were killed in the bloodiest incident of state violence since the days of apartheid. Siphiwe Sibeko / Reuters

South Africa in shock as police kill 34 striking miners

President Jacob Zuma says a commission will investigate the violence that started as a wage dispute and descended into a violent confrontation between miners and police.

Wives searched for missing loved ones, some miners vowed a fight to the death and Jacob Zuma, South Africa's president, said he would investigate the police shooting that left 34 striking miners dead.

One day after the bloodiest incident of state violence in the country since apartheid, South Africa was searching its soul and wondering what its new era had wrought.

Mr Zuma cut short a trip to Mozambique to visit the site of Thursday's clash, the Lonmin Marikana platinum mine, which lies 100 kilometres north-west of Johannesburg.

"Today is not an occasion for blame, finger-pointing or recrimination," he said. "Having received the briefing … it is clear there is something serious behind these happenings."

Mr Zuma said he will appoint a commission of inquiry.

People gathered yesterday at hospitals in the area hoping to find missing family members; besides the dead, 78 miners were injured in the confrontation.

At the scrubland scene of the clash, a woman carrying a baby on her back said she was looking for a missing miner.

"My husband left yesterday morning at 7am to come to the protest and he never came back," said Nobantu Mkhuze.

Miners' wives took the place of dead and wounded husbands yesterday in staging a protest at the mine. "Police stop shooting our husbands and sons," read a banner carried by the women.

The miners were demanding a monthly wage increase from US$625 to $1,560 (Dh2,300 to Dh5,730) but it remains unclear what sparked their fatal charge at police.

Makhosi Mbongane, 32, a winch operator, said mine managers should have come to the striking workers rather than send police. Mr Mbongane vowed that he would not go back to work.

"They can beat us, kill us and kick and trample on us with their feet, do whatever they want to do, we aren't going to go back to work," he said. "If they employ other people they won't be able to work either, we will stay here and kill them."

The South Africa Police Service defended its officers' actions, saying that they were "viciously attacked by the group, using a variety of weapons, including firearms".

"The police members had to employ force to protect themselves from the charging group," Riah Phiyega, the police chief, said.

The Independent Police Investigative Directorate will investigate the violence, the South African Press Association reported.

Investigators combed the site yesterday, collecting spent cartridges, the slain miners' bloodstained traditional weapons - machetes and spears - and six firearms.

At least 10 other people had been killed before Thursday in the week-long strike, including two police officers battered to death by strikers and two mine security guards burnt alive.

Thursday's tragedy prompted a deep analysis of South Africa's psyche.

The shootings "awaken us to the reality of the time bomb that has stopped ticking - it has exploded", The Sowetan newspaper said in a front-page editorial yesterday. "Africans area pitted against each other ... They are fighting for a bigger slice of the mineral wealth of the country."

Other headlines screamed "Bloodbath", "Killing Field" and "Mine Slaughter", with graphic photographs of heavily armed white and black police officers walking casually past the corpses of black men lying crumpled in the dust. The images, along with television footage of a phalanx of officers firing automatic weapons on a small group of men in blankets and T-shirts, rekindled uncomfortable memories of the country's past.

Moreover, Thursday's shootings are seen as a microcosm of the problems facing South Africa 18 years after white racist rule ended, including growing inequality between a white minority joined by a small black elite while most blacks endure high unemployment and inadequate housing, health care and education.

Mr Zuma's government has played down demands that South Africa's mines and farms be nationalised despite his party's powerful youth wing arguing that nationalisation is the only way to redress the evils of the apartheid past.

In his speech yesterday, Mr Zuma said: "The events of the past few days have unfortunately been visited upon a nation that is hard at work at addressing the challenges of poverty, unemployment and inequality."

The Lonmin PLC chairman Roger Phillimore issued a statement saying the deaths were deeply regretted. But he emphasised that the mine considers it "clearly a public order rather than a labour relations associated matter".

While the initial protest focused on wages, the violence has been fuelled by struggles between the dominant National Union of Mineworkers (NUM), a close ANC ally, and the upstart and more radical Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union. Disputes between the two unions escalated into violence this year at another mine.

The NUM secretary general, Frans Baleni, has said that some of his union members were on a hit list, including a shop steward whom strikers killed on Tuesday.

"There is clearly an element in this that a key supporter of the ANC - the NUM - has come under threat from these protesting workers," said Nic Borain, a political analyst.

As a result of the unrest, Lonmin, a London-headquartered company, had been forced to shut down all its South African platinum operations, which account for 12 per cent of global output.

 

* Associated Press and Reuters

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