MARIKANA, South Africa: South African President Jacob Zuma Friday announced an official probe into the “shocking” deaths of 34 workers in police fire at a platinum mine run by leading producer Lonmin.
As frantic wives searched for missing loved ones, Zuma rushed home from a regional summit and some miners vowed a fight to the death Friday as police announced a shocking casualty toll from the previous day’s shooting by officers of striking platinum miners: 34 dead and 78 wounded.
“We have to uncover the truth about what happened here. In this regard, I’ve decided to institute a commission of inquiry. The inquiry will enable us to get to the real cause of the incident and to derive the necessary lessons too,” Zuma said.
“It is clear there is something serious behind these happenings and that’s why I have taken a decision to establish the commission because we must get to the truth,” he said.
“This is unacceptable in our country, which is a country that everyone feels comfortable in. A country with a democracy that everyone envies.
“This is a shocking thing. We do not know where it comes from and we have to address it,” he added.
Wives of miners at the Lonmin platinum mine northwest of Johannesburg took the place of dead and wounded husbands Friday in staging a protest.
But this time instead of asking for higher wages as the miners had done, the women demanded to know why police had opened fire Thursday with automatic rifles, pistols and shotguns on the strikers, many of whom had been armed with spears, machetes and clubs.
Police said at a news conference that it was in self-defense, noting that strikers even possessed a pistol taken from a police officer they had beaten to death Monday.
“Police stop shooting our husbands and sons,” read a banner carried by the women. They kneeled before shotgun-toting police and sang a protest song, saying “What have we done?” in the Xhosa language.
National police Chief Mangwashi Victoria Phiyega told a packed news conference Thursday was a dark day for South Africa and no time for pointing fingers, even as people compared the shootings to apartheid-era state violence and political parties and labor unions demanded an investigation.
At least 10 other people were killed during the week-old strike, including two police officers battered to death by strikers and two mine security guards burned alive when strikers set their vehicle ablaze.
Makhosi Mbongane, a 32-year-old winch operator, said mine managers should have come to the striking workers rather than send police. Strikers were demanding monthly salary raises from $625 to $1,563. Mbongane vowed that he was not going back to work and would not allow anyone else to do so either.
Myriad problems are facing South Africa 18 years after racist rule ended, including growing inequality between a white minority joined by a small black elite while most black people endure high unemployment and inadequate housing, health care and education.
The shootings “awaken us to the reality of the time bomb that has stopped ticking – it has exploded,” The Sowetan newspaper said in a front-page editorial Friday. “Africans area pitted against each other ... They are fighting for a bigger slice of the mineral wealth of the country.”
The youth wing of the ruling African National Congress party argues that nationalization of the nation’s mines and farms is the only way to redress the evils of the apartheid past. Zuma’s government has played down those demands.
Meanwhile Friday, police investigators combed the scene of the shooting to mark evidence amid the dirt and bushes where the shooting took place. Police also searched the rocky outcropping where thousands of miners had gathered daily to strike.
The South Africa Police Service defended officers’ actions, saying in a statement that they were “viciously attacked by the [strikers], using a variety of weapons, including firearms. The police, in order to protect their own lives and in self-defense, were forced to engage the group with force.”
Shocked South Africans watched replay after replay of video of the shooting that erupted after police used water cannon, and then stun grenades and tear gas in an effort to disperse the strikers and get them to hand over their weapons. Some miners did leave, though others carrying weapons began war chants and marched toward the township near the mine.
Suddenly, a group of miners rushed through the underbrush and haze of tear gas at a line of police officers. Officers immediately opened fire, with miners falling to the ground. Dozens of shots were fired by police armed with automatic rifles. By the time officers shouted “Cease-fire!” dozens of miners were motionless on the ground, dead or dying.