Reuters and Staff Reporters
Riot police opened fire on striking miners armed with machetes and sticks at Lonmin’s Marikana platinum mine killing scores and wounding many more in the deadliest episode in a week of union violence.
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, the protesters on the hill nor the journalists at the scene expected the mayhem that followed.
President Jacob Zuma was “alarmed and deeply saddened” by the “senseless violence”.
He urged police to bring the situation under control and arrest those responsible for violence.
During the course of the day, thousands of strikers began leaving the rocky outcrop they had occupied, when they saw heavily armed officers backed by armoured vehicles laying out barbed wire barricades.
Police opened fire with automatic weapons on a group of men who burst out from behind a vehicle. The volley of bullets threw up clouds of dust, which cleared to reveal at least 12 bodies lying on the ground.
It was not clear whether the police were fired upon.
They appeared to be on edge and with rifles pointing forwards immediately before the incident and photographs showed spears and clubs lying near the bodies.
Lonmin’s flagship platinum plant has been closed since Tuesday because of the unrest.
There has been no confirmation of the death toll but some sources have put it at up to 40 with scores more injured. An uneasy calm returned to the Marikana mine area yesterday evening.
Leaders of the radical Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (Amcu), which was representing most of the strikers, accused police of a massacre.
Some commentators likened the scenes to the days of apartheid rule, infamous for its pictures and footage of ranks of police opening fire on crowds of protesters.
“I cannot think of a confrontation between protesters and police since 1994 that has taken place along these lines,” said Nic Borain, an independent political analyst.
Pretoria News photographer Phill Magakoe said in his five years at the newspaper, including covering humanitarian aid missions, he had not seen anything like it. “Seeing people that I’d just befriended getting shot at close range and falling down dead before my eyes is something I will not forget for the rest of my life.
“I’ve been to trouble spots in other countries, but what I saw happening here, so close to home, was shocking. I will always ask myself if it could not have been resolved differently.”
Before the start of the operation by hundreds of police, officials said several days of talks with Amcu leaders had broken down, leaving no option but to disperse the striking drill operators by force.
“Today is unfortunately D-day,” police spokesman Dennis Adriao said earlier.
Prior to yesterday, 10 people – including two policemen – had died in nearly a week of fighting between rival worker factions at the mine.
The Marikana strikers have not made their demands explicit, although much of the bad blood at the mine stems from Amcu’s challenge to the two-decade dominance of the National Union of Mineworkers.
NUM has distanced itself from the police action and blamed Amcu for the bloodshed.
NUM spokesman Lesiba Seshoka told e.tv last night that Amcu had to take full responsibility for the killings, claiming that the union had condoned the workers demand for R12 500.
Earlier yesterday, NUM secretary general Frans Baleni took a swipe at the police saying they were aware of the identities of the perpetrators.
According to Baleni, the police were aware that the striking workers had imported a sangoma from the Eastern Cape.
The sangoma’s job was to provide the workers with muti to allow them to wield their pangas and fire their guns against NUM members, he said.
Before the police advance, Amcu president Joseph Mathunjwa war-ned that there would be bloodshed if police moved in.
“We’re going nowhere,” he shouted through a loudspeaker, to cheers from the crowd. “If need be, we’re prepared to die here.”
The unrest has forced Mari-kana’s London-headquartered owner to halt production at all its South African operations, which account for 12 percent of global platinum output.
Lonmin said it had lost the equivalent of 15 000 ounces of platinum from the six-day disruption, and was unlikely to meet its full-year production target of 750 000 ounces.
“We are treating the developments around police operations this afternoon with the utmost seriousness,” Lonmin chairman Roger Phillimore said in a statement.
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