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It was an attack that turned a protest into a killing zone and by last night the dead lay scattered across the veld in Marikana, in North West province. Fears were that the death toll could exceed 30, with people dying during the night. More than 80 were believed to be badly injured.
In between the dead, the wounded lay groaning in pain as the gun- fire continued. Next to them lay the bodies of comrades who bore gruesome bullet wounds and gashes.
The day had begun with North West police boss Lieutenant-General Zukiswa Mbombo vowing to end the Lonmin wage strike.
No one, not the unions, nor the protesters on the hill, nor the journalists at the scene expected the mayhem that followed.
During the course of the day, thousands of strikers began leaving the rocky outcrop they had occupied, when they saw heavily armed officers laying out barbed wire barricades.
The outflanked police opened fire with automatic weapons at a group who burst out from behind a vehicle. The volley of bullets threw up clouds of dust, which cleared to reveal bodies lying on the ground.
Asked before the shooting if the strikers’ gathering was a peaceful protest, national police spokesman Captain Dennis Adriao said it could not be “when people are armed”.
“We’ve accommodated them for four days, 10 people are dead; property has been damaged and burnt. We now have to use force,” he said.
“Today is unfortunately D-Day.”
Until yesterday, the death toll was 10: two police officers, two security guards, three striking miners and three bystanders had been killed since Friday.
Those on the hilltop had vowed not to leave until their salaries had been upped from R5 000 to R12 500.
Attempts by police and union representatives to negotiate a truce with the strikers – who carried home-made weapons, including axes, sharpened steel rods, pangas and knobkieries – had failed.
Just before the police moved, representatives of the new Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union tried to intervene and get management to address the striking workers in a last-ditch bid to end the stand-off.
The miners would not accept that anyone but Lonmin’s chief executive, Ian Farmer, speak to them. But Lonmin said Farmer was on sick leave and in hospital.
The miners dug in their heels.
The shooting began when a group of protesters moved down the hill towards an informal settlement. Police advanced.
The workers scattered, with some running into the veld and others towards the informal settlement. Helicopters hovered overhead and police officers – some in Nyalas (armoured riot vehicles), others on horseback – followed the strikers. Police used water cannon, tear gas and live ammunition.
Police said they opened fire because they were shot at first.
After the shooting, paramedics and ambulances were brought in to treat and move the injured.
Last night, a crowd of chanting strikers had regrouped in the informal settlement. At least one car was stoned. Police remained in the area monitoring a tense situation.
* President Jacob Zuma said he was deeply saddened: “We are shocked and dismayed. There is enough space in our democratic order for any dispute to be resolved through dialogue.”