The images would have made more sense in South Africa's apartheid era: riot cops firing into a crowd of desperate, impoverished black mineworkers charging their lines at the Lonmin platinum mine, armed with machetes. When the firing ceased, 34 of the striking miners lay dead. The government called for calm; the local community seethed.
But apartheid ended 18 years ago, and the government that sent its police to break the strike is run by the African National Congress (ANC), the liberation movement that led the fight against apartheid, and which counts the mainstream National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) among its key bases of support. In one of the more unfortunate ironies of the tragic mass shooting, among the shareholders in the mining company being challenged by the strike is Cyril Rama phosa, who led the NUM in the apartheid era and was once considered the heir apparent to lead the ANC. The former union boss is now one of the richest men in South Africa. Clearly, things are more complex today than they once were. But they're also devastatingly simple.
The mines were central to the apartheid system of labour coercion, the men who risked their lives down the shafts every day worked and lived in horrific conditions, paid a pittance to haul up the gold that enriched a small handful of white people. The police were simply the brutal system's violent enforcers. Yet, Lonmin showed just how little had changed for many since the end of apartheid.
According to mine officials, the rock drillers earn 10,500 rand (Dh4,800) a month* for doing some of the most dangerous work in the South African economy. Dissatisfied by the efforts of the NUM, which many see as overly involved in the internecine factional battles of the ANC, they rejected its tutelage, sometimes violently. And when they went on strike, it was to demand wage increases - a demand that NUM and ANC officials dismissed as "unrealistic", which it may well be when viewed from the perspective of the mine's investors amid rapidly declining world demand for platinum.
"This is a critical moment for South Africa's mining industry," noted the Financial Times columnist Lex. "The financial rationale for platinum mining is fading... One reason is rising labour costs. Industry players say wages for miners have risen by 40 per cent during the past five years, yet industrial unrest continues."
Indeed, the bloodbath at Lonmin has left the government struggling to fashion a coherent message, calling for calm and for an inquiry and for mourning, but unable to bridge the gulf between those it claims to represent, and those on whose behalf it effectively governs.
Lonmin was, in fact, a symptom of the crisis facing the post-apartheid social contract, as the impoverished black majority that propelled the ANC to power faces a level of social inequality worse than it was two decades ago.
The fact that blood was spilled in what was, in microcosm, a battle over how the country's wealth will be shared, is a stunning indictment of the ANC's stewardship. After all, the "unrealistic" wage of R12,500 (Dh5,700) the strikers were demanding for their dangerous work was, essentially, the same as today's median income among white South Africans. More South Africans - close to 40 per cent - live on less than $3 (Dh11) a day today than was the case under apartheid. Flying into Cape Town offers the almost surreal experience of a drive from the airport through miles of shanties, but within 10 minutes your car is rolling past a Maserati showroom and into a realm of consumption obscenely conspicuous given its wider surroundings.
The economic elite remains largely white, but the political elite is now black - and it has used its political leverage as its ticket to the party. Under the presidency of Thabo Mbeki, the ANC abandoned its social-democratic growth through redistribution thinking, embracing neoliberal economics and effectively offering the white business elite a simple deal: a profoundly unequal economic status quo would be maintained, but a black elite had to be admitted to board rooms, and given a substantial stake in keeping things going.
This may have been undertaken under the rubric of "Black Economic Empowerment", but the idea that the fruits of the instant "tycoonisation" of a handful of politically connected black power players would somehow trickle down to the majority is about as laughable as the Republican insistence that tax cuts for the wealthy will create jobs in America.
The global economic downturn is exacerbating South Africa's social crisis, and imperiling the ANC's social contract. As their burden grows heavier, the majority are beginning to challenge inequality, while investors are anxious, and beginning to eye the exits.
If the government seems paralysed, that's because its game has been called, and it will become increasingly difficult to satisfy both the business elite and the impoverished majority. Meanwhile, rivals of Jacob Zuma are using the miners' plight as a bludgeon with which to beat the president in order to advance personal agendas.
But the ANC's problem is profound: the majority of black people won't be lifted out of poverty as long as economic empowerment means simply admitting a few black politically connected capitalists to the boardroom. South Africa has long been hailed as a model of national reconciliation, but it never addressed the social inequality inherent in apartheid. Talk of a "rainbow nation" can no longer paper over the chasm of inequality.
South Africans share a common society, but they share it on terms of profound inequality that hasn't been fundamentally altered by the attainment of political freedom. Lonmin has reminded all South Africans that they can no longer postpone defining the kind of society they want to live in, and the rights and obligations that follow. The present cannot hold.
Tony Karon is an analyst based in New York
On Twitter: @TonyKaron
* Clarification: The earnings figure of 10,500 is disputed, with the workers claiming to earn less than half of that.