South Africa's police have been accused of treating the lives of black workers as "cheap" after the national police chief said that her officers had been acting in self defence when they killed 34 striking miners in a hail of bullets.
Riah Phiyega, the police commissioner, defended her officers, saying they had been left with no choice but to use “maximum force” against charging protesters at Marikana platinum mine, 60 miles north-west of Johannesburg.
But critics accused the police of turning a “protest into a kill zone”, while a trade union leader said there was “no need” for such bloodshed.
Sobbing women were yesterday searching for their missing husbands near Marikana mine, owned by Lonmin, the London-listed company. Police said that another 78 miners were wounded - some critically - when a rank of officers opened fire with automatic weapons on Thursday.
“I didn’t see my husband since yesterday morning,” said a weeping woman with a baby on her back. Neither the police nor the Lonmin mine hospital, where the wounded are being treated, was prepared to help, she added.
Poloko Tau, a local journalist, accused the police of making a “well-planned attack that turned a protest into a kill zone”. He added: “No-one, not the unions, the protesters on the hill, or the journalists at the scene expected the mayhem that followed.”
President Jacob Zuma left a regional summit in Mozambique and flew back to South Africa as the nation absorbed an event that summoned memories of apartheid-era bloodshed, notably the Sharpeville massacre of 1960. Mr Zuma ordered an official inquiry, adding: “We have to uncover the truth about what happened here”. The president said: “This is not a day to apportion blame. It is a day for us to mourn together as a nation.”
Almost two decades after the end of white rule, the anger and resentment of South Africa’s impoverished black majority is steadily rising. “African lives are cheap as ever,” said an editorial in “The Sowetan”, a newspaper named after South Africa’s most famous township. In a normal country, said the paper, the bloodshed “would have led to drastic measures being taken by the government”. But “this is an abnormal country in which all the fancy laws are enacted and the Constitution is hailed as the best on earth. All the right noises are made and yet the value of human life, especially that of the African, continues to be meaningless.”
A radical union, the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (AMCU), organised the strike at Marikana mine. Jeffrey Mphahlele, its general secretary, accused the police of overreacting and said: “There was no need whatsoever for these people to be killed like that.”
But Ms Phiyega gave a detailed account of events leading up to the shooting. Miners at Marikana were divided between those striking for higher pay, and others who tried to continue as normal. This reflected a poisonous rivalry between the National Union of Mineworkers, a long established body, and the newly created AMCU.
Fighting between the miners claimed three lives last week and two policemen were hacked to death on Monday. Police told the miners to lay down their arms - which included guns as well as clubs and machetes - and reach a negotiated settlement. On Thursday, however, about 3,000 miners - many of them armed - defied this order by massing near Marikana. Police tried to break them up to make them “more manageable”, but the miners charged. “We tried to repel the advance with water cannon, tear gas and stun grenades,” said Ms Phiyega. But still the miners came forward: a vivid scene on national television showed them charging out of the bush towards a row of armed police. At this point, officers were “forced to use maximum force to defend themselves,” said the commissioner.
Scores of miners were cut down, leaving dead and wounded strewn across the bush. Experts cautioned that it was too early to pass judgement. Johan Burger, from South Africa’s Institute for Security Studies, said: “We don’t know enough yet, but we do know that some of the workers gathered on that hill were heavily armed and they shot at the police. We are checking to see whether they also shot at a helicopter.”
The miners at Marikana are paid about £450 per month, and the strikers wanted Lonmin to double their salaries. Many have left wives and families in other parts of South Africa - and sometimes in neighbouring countries.