South African police killed 34 striking workers at Lonmin Plc’s Marikana platinum-mining complex yesterday, the worst death toll in police action since the end of apartheid in 1994.
At least 78 people were injured in the clashes, Police Commissioner Riah Phiyega told reporters in Marikana in North West province today.
Violence erupted yesterday as police used tear gas and live ammunition to disperse thousands of workers gathered on a hilltop near the mine. Clashes between rival labor unions led to a six-day standoff with police in which 10 people had already died, including two officers. Police say they acted in self-defense yesterday after coming under attack from the workers armed with spears, machetes and pistols.
“Police had no option but to open fire,” Phiyega said. “This is a dark moment for the country. This is no time for pointing fingers.”
President Jacob Zuma will set up a commission of inquiry to investigate the violence, he said in a televised press conference from Marikana. Zuma cut short his trip to Mozambique, where he was attending a regional heads-of-state summit.
“There’s something serious behind this happening,” Zuma said. “That’s why I’ve taken the decision to establish a commission, because we must get to the truth. This is unacceptable.”
About 3,000 rock-drill operators went on an illegal strike on Aug. 10 demanding that Lonmin increase their pay to 12,500 rand a month ($1,505). The protests turned violent this week because of rivalry between the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union and the National Union of Mineworkers, according to Lonmin. AMCU has tried to recruit workers at the mine to challenge the dominance of NUM.
AMCU’s President Joseph Mathunjwa wept today as he told reporters in Johannesburg that he pleaded with miners to disperse before police opened fire. NUM General Secretary Frans Baleni said in an interview he supports Zuma’s inquiry because “it will tell us who armed the workers” and investigate allegations of intimidation against workers that didn’t want to participate in the illegal strike.
“It’s a national tragedy,” Dianne Kohler Barnard, a spokeswoman on police matters for the Democratic Alliance, said in a phone interview. “An independent inquiry must take place.”
South African newspapers carried front-page photos today of police in riot gear and armed with rifles standing over about six bodies on the ground.
The police action is the worst in the country since 1985, when apartheid security forces shot and killed 20 marchers at a funeral procession in Langa in Eastern Cape, according to the Johannesburg-based South African Institute of Race Relations.
There was evidence that police randomly shot into the crowd of protestors yesterday in a scene reminiscent of the massacre in Sharpeville in 1960, in which 69 people protesting the policies of racial discrimination were killed, according to the institute.
Phiyega said police “did what we could with what we had” and their task “is to protect the community and our members.”
Protests have turned more violent in South Africa since 2006. Eight police officers are currently facing charges related to the death of an unarmed protester, Andries Tatane, in Ficksburg in the central Free State province, in April 2011. He was shot and beaten by police during a community march over the lack of delivery of government services. Photos of his death were broadcast on national television and published in newspapers, stoking condemnation from opposition political parties.
“After we became a democracy, nobody bothered to train them to deal with this sort of situation,” Steven Friedman, director of the Centre for the Study of Democracy at the University of Johannesburg, said in a phone interview today. “Some police officers were killed earlier in the week and that made police even more disinclined to do what police are supposed to do, which is to stop violence, rather than cause violence.”
Siyonela Cebile, 34, who was among the protestors yesterday said police used water cannons on the back of armored vehicles, known as Casspirs, to disperse the crowd.
‘Shoot to Kill’
“The people were sitting on the rocks, stood up when the Casspirs came,” Cebile said in an interview outside a hospital in Marikana where he visited his injured brother. “The police pointed firearms at us and opened fire.”
Johannesburg-based eNews Channel interviewed a woman who wept as she said she was searching for her husband. About 100 women today gathered near the vicinity of the shooting, holding placards saying “Don’t kill our men.” One of the women shouted “Down with the killers,” referring to the police.
Zuma is struggling to maintain public trust in the security services. He appointed Phiyega two months ago to replace Bheki Cele, who was fired in the wake of a corruption scandal. Cele was criticized during his term in office for introducing military ranks to the police structure and telling police officers to “shoot to kill” when faced with armed criminals.
“We are the only democracy in the world where the police is militarized,” Keith Gottschalk, a professor at the University of Western Cape in Cape Town, said in a phone interview. “This comes with a mindset of being macho and using maximum force with firearms.”
Workers’ safety must be assured before there’s a return to normalcy at Marikana mine, located about 100 kilometers (62 miles) west of the capital, Pretoria, Director Mohamed Seedat said in a phone interview today. The company said in a statement it will help fund education costs for children of employees that died.
Lonmin shares fell as much as 8.6 percent to 592.5 pence today and closed at 639.5 pence in London. Platinum for immediate delivery gained 2.2 percent to $1,472.45 an ounce, adding to yesterday’s 3.3 percent.
Shanduka Group Ltd., the investment holding company that owns a stake in Lonmin’s operations, will help pay for funerals, it said in a statement. Shanduka is controlled by Cyril Ramaphosa, who founded NUM in 1982.
“This is a terrible tragedy,” Ramaphosa said in an interview in Marikana. “It’s shocking. It’s something that one thought that we’d left behind in the shadow of apartheid.”
Earlier this year fighting between the unionists at Impala Platinum Holdings Ltd.’s operation close to Marikana led to the closure of the world’s biggest platinum mine for six weeks and four people were killed.
Eighteen years after the end of apartheid, South Africa is struggling to cut a 25 percent unemployment rate and boost income for about 35 percent of the population that live on less than $51 a month. Crime is still rampant, with the murder rate of 31.9 per 100,000 people more than six times that of the U.S.
The rand fell 1.3 percent to 8.3222 against the dollar as of 5:45 p.m. in Johannesburg, while the yield on the R157 government bond gained 3 basis points, or 0.03 percentage points, to 5.7 percent
“We have a tremendous problem here in terms of inherited inequalities and we have a police force that doesn’t know how to deal with public violence in a human way,” Friedman said.