As the number of protesters killed at a South African platinum mine reaches 34, a blame game has begun over the deaths, a reminder to the public of the dark days of apartheid.
The violence at Marikana, 60 miles north-west of Johannesburg, peaked yesterday after police opened fire on a crowd of 3,000 protesting mine workers. Official sources said 34 died in the violence and 78 were injured. Hundreds more have been arrested.
South African president Jacob Zuma said today that he was launching an inquiry into the killing so “we can get to the real cause of the incident and learnt the necessary lessons”.
“We assure the South African people in particular that we remain fully committed to ensuring that this country remains a peaceful, stable, productive and thriving nation that is focused on improving the quality of life for all, especially the poor and the working class,” he said.
“It is against this background that we have to uncover the truth about what happened here.”
In the week running up to yesterday’s bloodshed, 10 people, including two police officers, had already been killed in clashes between rival miners’ unions – the National Union of Miners (NUM) and the Association of Miners and Construction Union (AMCU) – and the police.
At the forefront of the miners’ protests was a demand for higher wages, but in the background was the rivalry between the NUM, an ally of South Africa’s leading African National Congress Party, and AMCU, an “upstart” looking to challenge NUM’s dominance.
I hate to politicize this incident but is this what we should expect from Zuma’s Mangaung strategy? Union allies of his clashing with others
— Julius Sello Malema (@Julius_S_Malema) August 16, 2012
Crowds of women, many of them wives of the protestors, gathered at the platinum mine to protest and to search for their loved ones.
The South African Police Service (SAPS) and the government’s police ministry have laid the blame for the deaths at the door of the protesting miners (pictured above), branding members of the crowd “hardcore criminals” who “murder police”.
A statement from the police service said officers had been trying peacefully to disarm and disperse the “illegal gatherers” when they were attacked and forced to defend themselves.
“The South African Police Service was viciously attacked by the group, using a variety of weapons, including firearms,” the statement said. “The police, in order to protect their own lives and in self-defence, were forced to engage the group with force. This resulted in several individuals being fatally wounded, and others injured.”
Zweli Mnisi, spokesman for South Africa’s police minister, said: “The minister is of the view that given the volatility of the situation, police did their best.
“What should police do in such situations when clearly what they are faced with are armed and hardcore criminals who murder police?”
Newspapers in South Africa were quick to condemn the police for the violence. Headlines this morning described Marikana as a “Bloodbath”, “Killing Field” and “Mine Slaughter”.
The images of police offers standing over the bodies over protesters rekindles memories of South Africa’s apartheid past.
One radio station caller likened the incident, at Lonmin’s Marikana platinum plant, to the 1960 Sharpeville township massacre near Johannesburg, when apartheid police opened fire on a crowd of black protesters, killing more than 50.
The ANC Youth League likened the police force to a “bloodthirsty killing machine.”
In a statement the youth wing of the ANC said: “It will never be correct for our society to turn on and kill law enforcement agencies, but the South African Police Service, mandated to serve and protect us, cannot never also turn into a bloodthirsty killing machine.
“We condemn in the strongest possible terms the use of live ammunition in public order policing and call on Minister Mthethwa to conduct full investigation to explain to South Africans how it is that police turned on our people and killed them, when the right to life paramount.”
NUM regrets riots at Lonmin and may the ring leaders who caused these be arrested irrespective of union affiliation.
— NUM (@NUM_Media) August 16, 2012
The main opposition to the ANC, the Democratic Alliance, also called for an inquiry. Dianne Kohler Barnard, shadow minister of the police, said: “The massacre which ensued and the use of live ammunition by the police have raised some very serious questions about how the SAPS manage violent protests.
“In particular, we want to know who authorised the use of live ammunition on the striking workers. We have to know what the line of command was for yesterday’s protest. Whoever gave the order to use live ammunition and open fire must be held accountable.”
Lonmin and the unions
The ANC Youth League has criticised “murderous and unscrupulous elements within the trade union movement” for the tragedy, saying they provoked the “vulnerable” workers into rampaging.
The ANC, led by Jacob Zuma (pictured left), has also said the deaths could have been avoided “had the trade union operating at Lonmin and Lonmin mine management found a resolution to the dispute.”
Earlier in the week, AMCU president Joseph Mathunjwa had warned there would be bloodshed if police tried to disperse the crowd. “We’re going nowhere,” he had told the protesters through a loud-hailer. “If need be, we’re prepared to die here.”
On Twitter, the NUM has been calling for the ring leaders who stoked the violence to be arrested. The AMCU, in turn, has accused the NUM of lying about events at the platinum mine.
The protesters are reportedly paid around 4,000 South African rand a month, equivalent to £306. The workers, many of whom live in shacks near the mine, had been asking for their salaries to increase to around 12,000 rand.
Lonmin chairman Roger Phillimore said the company deeply regretted the loss of life at the site, but said the dispute was clearly a “public order rather than labour relations associated matter”.
Marikana is the jewel in the crown of Lonmin’s mining operation. It contributes around 92 per cent of Lonmin’s total annual production. Shares in the company fell by 14.5p, or 2.24 per cent, in trading on the London stock exchange.
Since the dark days of South Africa’s apartheid ended in 1994 the country has remained in dire economic straits. The gap between the rich and the poor is described by the World Bank as “extreme”, with 25 per cent of people unemployed and “limited access to economic opportunities and basic services”.
The controversial former leader of the ANC Youth League, Julius Malema, pointed at the economy as a cause, saying South Africa’s “Arab Spring” was inevitable.
On the day of the killing the Democratic Alliance criticised the government for failing to reduce the economic gap, and said that the divisions in the ANC had left South Africa “in an uncertain situation with no clear vision for growth or economic justice.”