Johannesburg -The site of an illegal strike, that had already claimed the lives of 10 people, turned into a kill zone on Thursday with the dead lying scattered across the veld in Marikana in North West.
On Friday morning, the North West health department said 25 people had been killed in the shootout between police and miners at the Lonmin mine in Marikana, while Police Minister Nathi Mthethwa put the death toll at 30.
At the scene late on Thursday, the injured, said to number up to 86, lay groaning in pain as the gunfire continued.
Next to them the corpses of their comrades bore gruesome bullet wounds and gashes.
The day had begun when North West police head Lieutenant-General Zukiswa Mbombo vowed to end the Lonmin wage strike. No one, not the unions, the strikers 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 hill they had occupied when they saw police begin erecting barbed-wire barricades.
When asked shortly 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 now dead; property has been damaged and burnt. We now have to use force,” he said.
Until Thursday afternoon, the death toll had stood at 10 – two police officers, two security guards, three striking miners and three bystanders since the illegal strike began on 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 were armed with home-made weapons including axes, sharpened steel rods, pangas and knobkerries, had failed.
Just before the police moved in, representatives from the new union, the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (Amcu), tried to intervene and get management to address the striking workers.
The workers did not want anyone but Lonmin’s chief executive Ian Farmer to address them. But Lonmin released a statement saying Farmer was on sick leave and in hospital so the workers dug in their heels.
The shooting began as the group of protesters moved down the hill towards a nearby informal settlement.
Police began advancing towards them. The workers scattered, some running into the open veld, others towards the informal settlement.
Helicopters hovered overhead and police – some in armoured Nyalas, others on horseback – followed in hot pursuit.
Police used water canon, teargas and live ammunition. Police claimed they fired because they were shot at first.
After the shooting stopped, paramedics and ambulances were brought in to treat and move the injured.
Police Minister Nathi Mthethwa’s office said on Thursday that police had done their best in a volatile situation. “The minister is considering requesting the president to institute a full inquiry into this whole situation, not just around what happened today,” said spokesman Zweli Mnisi.
“Now what should police do in such situations when clearly what they are faced with are armed and hardcore criminals who murder police?”
Mnisi said police initially tried to disperse the crowd, using water cannons and teargas, but this did not help. Such efforts were countered with the murder of police officers.
“We had a situation where people armed to the teeth, attacked and killed others, even police officers and… one of the firearms used was that of a deceased police officer.”
Late on Thursday, President Jacob Zuma expressed his concern over the stand-off.
“I have instructed law enforcement agencies to do everything possible to bring the situation under control and to bring the perpetrators of violence to book. We extend our deepest condolences to the families of all who have lost their lives since the beginning of this violent action,’’ he said.
National Police Commissioner Riah Phiyega was due to address media on Friday at 11.30am at the Lonmin Training Centre.
On Thursday night, Cosatu general secretary Zwelinzima Vavi said: “Broadly we believe there is an orchestration, a planned violence, because the violence people are seeing today has been going on since January. Scores of people have been killed and systematically targeted. We can’t put our finger on it, but someone is orchestrating that violence.”
Vavi said Cosatu was concerned about the loss of lives and hoped the matter would be resolved through the intervention of the leadership of the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) and Amcu.
Amcu leaders on Thursday condemned the police action.
Amcu secretary-general Jeff Mphahlele said the killings happened after their failed meeting with Lonmin’s management, who refused to address the striking workers about their demands.
“There was no evidence that the workers who were sitting on the hilltop fired any shots at the police,” he said. “Prior to the killings, we tried to talk to the police and pleaded with them to refrain from using force but they threatened us with guns.”
The union has called for an investigation.
NUM’s Lesiba Seshoka said Amcu should take responsibility for the killings alleging they had condoned the workers’ demand for R12 500.
The Star, Sapa