REPORTING FROM JOHANNESBURG - South African police officials Friday confirmed that 34 striking miners at the Lonmin platinum mine were killed when police opened fire Thursday, and 78 more were injured, in the bloodiest protest since the apartheid era.
After an official silence Thursday on the number of casualties, police chief Riah Phiyega defended the police actions at a Friday news conference, saying they had no choice but to open fire when they were charged by a mob of angry miners.
She said police tried tear gas, water cannon, stun grenades and rubber bullets, all of which failed to disperse the miners.
PHOTOS: S. African police reportedly open fire on striking miners
South Africans reacted with shock and anger to graphic video footage, which showed miners trying to rush at police, who responded by firing weapons at them for around two minutes, as clouds of dust obscured the scene. When the dust cleared, numerous bodies were seen lying on the ground, some of them still moving.
Phiyega said that before Thursday’s violence, police tried to convince the strikers at the mine in Marikana, northwest of Johannesburg, to disperse, without success.
“The militant group stormed towards the police, firing shots and wielding dangerous weapons. Police retreated systematically and were forced to utilize maximum force to defend themselves,” Phiyega said.
An independent police body, the Independent Police Investigative Directorate, will investigate whether the police action was justified, spokesman Moses Dlamini announced Friday in a statement.
“The investigation will seek to establish if the police action was proportional to the threat that was posed by the miners. It is still early in the investigation to establish the real facts around this tragedy,” he said.
Critics said the shocking death toll was a sign that police were poorly trained to deal with the violent protests, which are becoming an increasingly common feature of South African life 18 years after the advent of democracy.
The incident divided South Africans, with some defending police actions, and others saying that the large number of police at the scene had used excessive force.
Some said police panicked when charged by the miners, then opened fire and kept on shooting because they feared they would be killed, after two police officers were brutally hacked to death by a mob of miners earlier in the week and their weapons taken.
Police arrested 256 miners after Thursday’s violence.
The incident was the deadliest police crowd-control exercise since the apartheid era, when security forces suppressed black township protesters with bullets.
In a front page editorial headlined “African lives as cheap as ever,” the Sowetan newspaper said the massacre called into question the quality of South Africa’s leaders.
“We wonder whether there isn't a numbness that comes with the death of an African. It has happened in other parts of the world where wars reduced human beings to nothing more than physical particles. It has happened in this country before where the apartheid regime treated black people like objects. It is continuing in a different guise now,” the editorial said.
The South African Institute of Race Relations, an independent think tank, compared the killings with the 1960 Sharpeville massacre when police shot more than 60 people dead. It called for the suspension of the police involved.
"What happened at Lonmin is completely unacceptable,” the institute said in a statement. "There is clear evidence that policemen randomly shot into the crowd with rifles and handguns. There is also evidence of their continuing to shoot after a number of bodies can be seen dropping and others turning to run.
“It would also appear as if they were not properly equipped to control a crowd.”
Protests are common in South Africa and often turn violent. Most are not about political freedom; they are more often a cry for a better life from poor, uneducated people living bleak, desperate lives with almost no hope of improvement.
South Africa’s townships and shantytowns see frequent protests over the government’s failure to deliver decent services – while a series of protests at mines have focused on better wages and conditions.
Many of the striking miners are rock drillers, one of the dirtiest and most dangerous jobs underground, earning $500 a week.
Some commentators blamed poor leadership, in barbed criticism of President Jacob Zuma, often seen as distracted by in-fighting and leadership squabbles in the ruling African National Congress.
Gavin Silber, columnist at online political news site Politicsweb, tweeted that the crisis at the Lonmin mine “illustrates SA crisis of leadership across the spectrum.”
The violence broke out after police laid out barbed wire to prevent miners from approaching the mine, according to Phiyega. Miners then rushed forward, trying to outflank the police.
She said six guns were recovered from the bodies of the dead miners who rushed at police, including two guns that belonged to the police killed earlier in the week. Under South African law, police are entitled to use lethal force if they believe their lives are in danger.
Phiyega, who formerly led Transnet, the state freight agency, was appointed as national police commissioner in June with no police experience.
The shootings Thursday brought the number of dead in the Lonmin platinum mine strike to 44. Miners walked off the job Aug. 10 demanding a 300% wage increase. Before Thursday’s shootings, 10 others were killed including two police, two security guards and three officials of the National Union of Mineworkers, one of two unions struggling for dominance in South Africa’s platinum mines.
The industrial dispute at the mine has been exacerbated by the battle between the National Union of Mineworkers and a new union, the Assn. of Mineworkers and Construction Union, both of whom pointed fingers at one another over the violence.
Three National Union of Mineworkers shop stewards were among the 10 killed earlier in the week and officials of the union accused the rival union of circulating a hit list of National Union of Mineworkers officials. The National Union of Mineworkers has accused the Assn. of Mineworkers and Construction Union of stirring up trouble during a crippling illegal six-week strike in January, when workers rioted, looted and burned property. Three died in that violence.
Analyst Steve Friedman said the main problem was that police were not trained to deal with violence like that encountered at the mine.
"It is not a question of being tougher. They are not adequately trained. If you put guns and bullets in the hands of these people, who are not trained properly, you have a problem," he told SAPA.
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Photo: South Africans protest against the police and the government outside the parliament in Cape Town on Friday. Credit: EPA