South Africa's Lonmin Marikana mine clashes killed 34

 

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Thirty-four people were killed after police opened fire on striking miners at a South African mine on Thursday, the police chief has said.

Riah Phiyega said police had been forced to shoot after armed protesters charged them, "firing shots", at the Marikana mine in the north-east.

At least 78 people were injured in the confrontation, she added.

Unions are demanding an inquiry into the incident - one of the bloodiest police operations since apartheid.

The Lonmin-owned platinum mine has been at the centre of a violent pay dispute, exacerbated by tensions between two rival trade unions.

Violence had already killed 10 people, including two police officers, since the strike began a week ago.

Analysis

This strike was sparked by a demand for better wages. And - armed with spears and machetes - strikers were in no mood for compromise.

But it goes much deeper than that. The traditional union in the area, the NUM, is a key ally of the African National Congress. Their backing is critical for President Jacob Zuma in his fight to retain his position in the ANC's party elections this December.

Miners accuse their leaders of abandoning their grassroots concerns, focussing instead on politics. So they turned to an alternative union to fight their corner. But - as so often happens in South Africa - this dispute turned violent. Two police had been killed earlier in the week.

The 3,000 police who surrounded the hilltop on which a similar number of miners had gathered were determined not to join their dead comrades. It is in the culture of the force. As one former police commissioner said, they should "shoot to kill" without worrying about what happened after that.

South African commentators are comparing this tragedy to Sharpeville - when the police fired at a crowd in 1960 - leading to the start of the armed struggle against white minority rule. This comparison seems a step too far. But the country is facing the bleakest moment since the end of apartheid.

Some of the strikers' wives gathered near the mine on Friday, chanting anti-police songs and demanding to know what had happened to their husbands.

"Police, stop shooting our husbands and sons," read a banner carried by the women, according to the Associated Press news agency.

South African President Jacob Zuma has cut short a trip to Mozambique in order to visit the mine, which lies about 100km (62 miles) north-west of Johannesburg.

'Maximum force'

Police were sent to break up some 3,000 miners - some armed with clubs and machetes - who had gathered on a hillside overlooking Marikana to call for a pay rise of about $1,000 (£636) a month.

The circumstances that led police to open fire remain unclear, but reports from eyewitnesses suggest the shooting took place after a group of demonstrators rushed at a line of police officers.

Police, armed with automatic rifles and pistols, fired dozens of shots, witnesses said.

One witness, Molaole Montsho, of the South African news agency Sapa, said police had first used water cannon, tear gas and stun grenades in an attempt to break up the protest.

"And then in the commotion - we were about 800m [2,600ft] from the scene - we heard gunshots that lasted for about two minutes," he said.

David Nkolisi, 37, who works as a rock-drill operator, told the BBC: "We were killed for asking our employer to pay us a decent salary for hard work deep underground."

At a news conference on Friday, Ms Phiyega said police had been forced to open fire to protect themselves.

"The militant group stormed toward the police, firing shots and wielding dangerous weapons," Ms Phiyega said. "Police were forced to use maximum force to defend themselves."

She said 259 people had been arrested on various charges.

Riah Phiyega: "The police members were forced to use maximum force to defend themselves"

The Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (AMCU) accused the police of carrying out a massacre.

"There was no need whatsoever for these people to be killed like that," General Secretary Jeffrey Mphahlele told Reuters news agency.

A spokesman said President Zuma would be travelling to the site later on Friday.

"The president is concerned about the violent nature of the protest, especially given that the constitution and labour laws allow enough avenues to deal with issues, and is sympathetic to calls for a commission of inquiry," his spokesman Mac Maharaj said in a statement.

Union rivalry

Thursday's incident came after several days of violent strikes in which 10 people were killed, including two police officers who were hacked to death.

Map

The miners, who are currently earning between 4000-5000 rand ($484 - $605), say they want their salary increased to 12,500 ($1,512).

The stand-off has been exacerbated by rivalry between two trade unions, with the AMCU, a new group, seeking to challenge the dominance of the NUM.

The NUM is seen as being close to the ruling African National Congress (ANC) and the two groups were allies in the fight to end white minority rule, although relations between the ANC and the unions have worsened in recent years.

South Africa is the largest platinum producer in the world and the dispute has already affected production.

Lonmin, the world's third-largest platinum producer, has encountered similar labour disputes at the Marikana mine.

In May 2011, the company sacked some 9,000 employees after what it described at the time as "unprotected industrial action". Lonmin and the NUM said all were later reinstated.

 

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  • rate this
    +12

    Comment number 134.

    As a South African I am deeply shocked and saddened by yesterday events. It seems we are unwilling or unable to leave our legacy of violence behind. Despite the fact that our laws are labour laws are considered to be some of the fairest and most liberal in the world, we resort to and are met with violence, as civilians and public servants. What hope do we have if this is how we resolve disputes?

  • rate this
    +7

    Comment number 104.

    Given the increasing value of metals and minerals in the world its only right that the miners should have a fair shar. Violence on both sides is to be condemned but surely the owners & the ANC government should have met someof their demands long before it escalated to this.

    If you treat people like animals then they will behave like animals.

  • rate this
    -15

    Comment number 64.

    It's so shocking and barbaric action for the police to open fire on the innocent citizens. I believe South Africa will never ever be in peace again since a massive number of people are being killed for unjustied reason. South Africa President must pull up socks on this issue on time otherwise there will be no peace in South Africa.

  • rate this
    +13

    Comment number 62.

    In a functioning democracy, the police do not kill dozens of protesters of any kind, irrespective of whether they happen to be holding machetes.

  • rate this
    +3

    Comment number 57.

    Am I missing something here? The miners were protesting about poor wages and working conditions, don't understand why the SA police had to get involved at all. They say they had to use lethal force to break the protest. So SA people don't have the right to protest? Think the police have set a dangerous precedent here and may well cause more violent protests.

 

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