It was a well-planned attack that turned a protest into a kill zone.
By late last night at least 51 miners had been killed. 48 were in a critical condition in hospitals from the mine itself to Rustenburg and Johannesburg. More were expected to perish before this morning.
Late yesterday afternoon, the dead lay scattered among heavily wounded across the veld in Marikana, groaning as the stacato sound of automatic gunfire died away into the distance.
The day had begun when North West police boss Lieutenant-General Zukiswa Mbombo vowed to end the Lonmin wage strike.
No one, not the unions, the protesters on the hill or 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 the 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.”
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 homemade weapons, had failed.
Just before the police moved in yesterday afternoon, representatives from new union Amcu tried to intervene and get management to address the striking workers in a last-ditch bid.
The workers would not accept anyone but Lonmin’s chief executive, Ian Farmer, from addressing 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 veld, others towards the informal settlement.
Helicopters hovered over head and cops – some in armoured riot vehicle, others on horseback – followed in hot pursuit.
Police used a water cannon, teargas and live ammunition. They said they fired because they were shot at first.
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