(File photo) Striking miners chant slogans outside a mine in Rustenburg, 100 km north-west of Johannesburg. Photo: Reuters

The death toll following a shootout between police and protesters at Lonmin's Marikana mine has risen to 36, the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) said on Friday.

“Our shopstewards on the ground report that 36 people were killed,” said NUM general secretary Frans Baleni.

“We are extremely saddened by this loss of life, it could have been avoided.”

Police ministry spokesman Zweli Mnisi said police figures indicated that “over 30” people were killed in Thursday's massacre at the mine, which he described as “a tragedy”.

He said that the official body count could rise as more information emerged.

Mnisi said police were called in to maintain order after the violent protests claimed the lives of 10 people, two of them police officers, in the past week.

“This cannot be a policing matter… We are coming to a point where we have labour matters that police can not resolve,” he said.

Union leaders and mine management should have met to defuse tensions and prevent the bloodshed.

“Police should not be peace brokers. We cannot resolve labour matters. Where was the voice of unions and management?” Mnisi asked.

The protests, which began last Friday, are believed to be linked to rivalry between the NUM and the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union over recognition agreements at the mine. Workers also wanted higher wages.

Mnisi said the workers had a constitutional right to protest “but (the Constitution) does not say you have a right to be violent when you protest”.

The strikers should have involved the police when planning their protests, as a security plan could have averted the trouble.

“There are so many peaceful protests that are properly planned,” he said.

Mnisi said that the Independent Police Investigative Directorate was on the scene, and that a full investigation was underway. - Sapa