A lone police helicopter circles overhead the Wonderkop informal settlement, drowning the chants and song of a mass of stick-wielding women on Friday. It is later joined by two others, blades churning the air above.
The women have taken over the protest in the scorching North West Province sun and are demanding the withdrawal of police from the dusty area next to the Lonmin Karee mine.
About 500 metres away from them a large group of men stand tense and motionless, their gaze fixed towards Wonderkop hill where only a day before police mowed down their colleagues and friends.
All of 34 people had died in an incident compared with the infamous Sharpeville massacre by apartheid authorities.
Today, the police have cordoned off the hill, a protruding mass of rock reminiscent of Australia’s Ayre Rock, with barbed wire and barricaded the area.
The men who had gathered in the morning and watched police throughout the day dispersed at mid afternoon to reportedly gather elsewhere.
The women chanted “Silwela amalungelo ethu (We are fighting for our rights)”.
Paulina Masuhlo is leading the women. Her 26-year-old son Kopo, a shaft sinker at Lonmin’s Karee mine, is missing. She last saw him at 7am on Thursday when he left to join the miners meeting at Wonderkop. She has been unable to trace him at the hospital and she is cannot ascertain if he has been arrested or not.
“I arrived last night at about 7 when people were being loaded on to ambulances. I understand the police started firing at people. All they [the miners] did was to raise their concerns. Our people are not being employed.We are staying in a squatter camp which Lonmin erected when they closed the hostels and put up family units. Government is not helping,” Masuhlo said.
At the Lonmin mine hospital scores of relatives wait outside the gate and are ferried in and out in groups of 20 to check if their loved ones are at the hospital.
Patrick Tulumane, a miner in his 50s, was part of the group who met for the union meeting at Wonderkop.
He claims police fired first.
By Friday, the death toll had climbed to 34 according to Riah Phiyega, the national police commissioner.
Phiyega said 78 people were injured and more than 250 people were arrested.
“Police had no option but to open fire,” Phiyega said. “This is a dark moment for the country. This is no time for pointing fingers.”
The communities claim that the police were brutal.
On Monday this reporter witnessed police officers removing handcuffs from a dead miner who was shot in the arm and perished at Donkerhoek, an informal settlement on Lonmin land, where the first fatalities took place.
He clearly was defenceless at the time. His knobkerrie and cracked cellphone lay close by.
Colonel Levi Mere, of the Gauteng SAPS, told Business Report on Friday that the police had to defend themselves on Thursday.
“They [the miners] were carrying guns in blankets.You could only see the barrel. They shot at very close range. Which language can we use? We’ve got the legal responsibility to serve and protect. Some people see police brutality but they don’t see police being shot,” Mere said.
President Jacob Zuma cut short his trip to Mozambique, where he was attending a regional heads-of-state summit, and will travel to Marikana today, his office said in a statement.
About 3 000 rock drill operators went on an illegal strike on August 10 demanding that Lonmin increase basic wages from R4 000 to R12 500.
The strike escalated into violence that has claimed the lives of factional union members including mine security guards.
Eight vehicles were also torched at Lonmin.
A Zimbabwean woman whose husband is a rock drill blaster spoke on condition of anonymity.
Luckily for her, her husband returned alive from the Wonderkop shooting.
She said R4 000 was a pittance. For their two-roomed shack in the Wonderkop informal settlement the family of four pays R600. Groceries amount to R1 500. They send R1 000 to Zimbabwe to a third son and the family looking after him. The family spends R400 on transportation for the five-year-old son to get to the creche on the mine compound. Creche fees are R200. The 14-year-old son in grade 7 needs R300 for his school fees.
She sells clothes to earn an additional income.
“The children are not going to school because of the violence. Our husbands are not going to work. We are suffering. We don’t know how this strike will end up.” – Additional reporting by Bloomberg