34 miners die in clash with police
South African President Jacob Zuma yesterday launched a probe into the deaths of 34 miners in a police crackdown on a wildcat strike, in the deadliest protest since apartheid.
Police at the Marikana platinum mine run by Lonmin, the world’s number three producer, insisted they acted in self-defence against hundreds of workers who stormed through teargas and rubber bullets trying to attack officers with gunfire, machetes and clubs.
But the nation recoiled from what local media quickly dubbed the “Marikana massacre”, drawing comparisons to the deadliest apartheid atrocities, chiefly the 1960 Sharpeville massacre when white police killed 69 black protesters.
As the death toll mounted during the day, Mr Zuma cut short a visit to a regional summit and flew to the mine, vowing to uncover the causes of the killings at the Lonmin-owned platinum mine.
“It is clear there is something serious behind these happenings and that’s why I have taken a decision to establish the commission (of inquiry) because we must get to the truth,” Mr Zuma said.
“This is unacceptable in our country, which is a country that everyone feels comfortable in. A country with a democracy that everyone envies.”
Police chief Riah Phiyega stood by her forces, saying officers had only used live ammunition after negotiations and crowd control tactics had failed.
“The militant group stormed towards the police, firing shots and wielding dangerous weapons,” she said.
“Police retreated systematically and were forced to utilise maximum force to defend themselves.”
So far 259 people had been arrested over the clash that left 34 dead and 78 injured, she said. Ten people, including two policemen, had died earlier at the mine. Some workers at the mine were on a week-long wildcat strike demanding a tripling of their wages from the current 4,000 rand (€400) a month.
With little official information about the victims, even 24 hours after the incident, residents of a shantytown near the mine were fuming with anger.
“Now I want to see my husband because his baby is crying,” said Asakhe Mayaphi, 25, gesturing to the shacks behind her. She last saw her husband Mzubanzi early on Thursday and did not know if he had been hurt or killed.
London-listed Lonmin said it would help the families identify and bury the dead. Many of the wounded had been taken to a nearby hospital run by the mine.
It was the deadliest police action in South Africa since 1985, when more than 20 blacks were shot dead by apartheid police in Cape Town as they marked the 25th anniversary of Sharpeville.