South African President Jacob Zuma has ordered a commission of inquiry into why police shot dead 34 striking mine workers. Police say they acted in self-defense. Critics say tactics used were reminiscent of apartheid.
Zuma on Friday cut short his visit to a regional summit in Mozambique and traveled to Rustenburg, 100 kilometers northwest of Johannesburg, near the mine site. He said Thursday's killings and the earlier killings of 10 other people, including two policemen, during the industrial dispute over the past week were "shocking."
Thousands of workers at the Marikana mine had been on strike to press for a tripling of wages in a standoff that also pitted a new union, the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (AMCU) against the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM). The NUM is a major ally of Zuma's African National Congress (ANC).
Rival unions blame each other
The two unions blamed each other for the outrage, with AMCU leader Joseph Mathunjwa saying Thursday's incident was "similar to Sharpeville," a reference to a 1960 massacre, long before white apartheid rule ended in 1994.
Television footage from Marikana had shown black and white police officers firing automatic weapons at a group of men in t-shirts and blankets. An estimated 3,000 protestors had massed on a hillock, some carrying a traditional type of machete.
Police chief argues self-defense
South Africa's recently appointed police chief Riah Phiyega said the striking workers included militants who had "stormed toward the police, firing shots and wielding dangerous weapons."
Police had only used live ammunition, she said, after negotiations and crowd control tactics, including the use of tear gas, had failed.
"The total death (toll) of the protestors currently stands at 34 with more than 78 injured," Phiyega said. Some people had been arrested, she added.
Analysts say Zuma's handling of the Marikana killings could be pivotal ahead of an ANC conference in December where he will seek a second term as party leader.
Relatives wait for information
On Friday, residents of a Marikana shantytown said they had been given little official information. Some said their husbands were still missing. Hospitals remained under a police-ordered lockdown.
The unrest at the London-listed Lonmin mine began last Friday with tensions already high among platinum mine workers after the closure of several mines this year. South Africa provides 80 percent of the world's platinum, a precious metal used in vehicle catalytic converters for exhaust gases.
Lonmin issued a statement expressing "deep regret" at the loss of life.
South African newspapers scathing
South African newspapers carried headlines such as "Bloodbath", "Killing Field" and "Mine Slaughter."
A researcher with the South African Institute of Race Relations, Lucy Holborn, said the issues that led to the Marikana killings were "not the same" as at Sharpeville in 1960 but said the "outcome is very similar."
"It comes down to inadequate training, too few police dealing with too many people, without adequate protection like shields. In a crowd control situation, police shouldn't be armed with live ammunition," Holborn said.
A spokeswoman for the Centre for Study of Violence and Reconciliation, Delphine Serumaga, said no ministers or top officials had visited the strike scene before Thursday to attempt to defuse tensions.
"They threw the police at the issue, but was the police ready to address the issue?," Serumaga asked, adding that many mine workers live a destitute life despite large South Africa's industry based on natural resource extraction.
ipj/slk (dpa, AFP, Reuters)