The police killing of 34 striking platinum miners in the bloodiest security operation since the end of white rule cut to the quick of South Africa’s psyche yesterday, with searching questions asked of its post-apartheid soul.
Newspaper headlines screamed “Bloodbath”, “Killing Field” and “Mine Slaughter,” with graphic photographs of heavily armed white and black police officers walking casually past the bloodied corpses of black men lying crumpled in the dust.
The images, along with Reuters television footage of a phalanx of officers opening up with automatic weapons on a small group of men in blankets and T-shirts, rekindled uncomfortable memories of the country’s racist past.
Police chief Riah Phiyega confirmed 34 dead and 78 injured after officers moved in against 3,000 striking drill operators armed with machetes and sticks who were massed on a rocky outcrop at the mine, 100km northwest of Johannesburg.
Phiyega, a former banking executive who was only appointed to lead the police force in June, said officers had acted in self-defence against charging, armed assailants at Lonmin’s Marikana platinum plant.
“The police members had to employ force to protect themselves from the charging group,” she told a news conference, noting that two policemen had been hacked to death by a mob at the mine on Tuesday.
However, the South African Institute of Race relations likened the incident to the 1960 Sharpeville township massacre near Johannesburg, when apartheid police opened fire on a crowd of black protesters, killing more than 50.
“Obviously the issues that have led to this are not the same as the past, but the response and the outcome is very similar,” research manager Lucy Holborn said.
In a front-page editorial, the Sowetan newspaper questioned what had changed since 1994, when Nelson Mandela overturned three centuries of white domination to become South Africa’s first black president.
“It has happened in this country before where the apartheid regime treated black people like objects,” the newspaper said. “It is continuing in a different guise now.”
South African President Jacob Zuma cut short a visit to a regional summit in neighbouring Mozambique to head to the mine. Zuma, who faces an internal leadership election in his ruling African National Congress (ANC) in December, said he was “shocked and dismayed” at the violence, but made no comment on the police behavior.
“We believe there is enough space in our democratic order for any dispute to be resolved through dialogue without any breaches of the law or violence,” he said.
As dawn broke, hundreds of police patrolled the dusty plains around the Marikana mine, which was forced to shut down this week because of a rumbling union turf war that has hit the platinum sector this year.
“There were no problems overnight. The problem is the hill over there where the shooting took place. I am not sure what will happen today,” said Patience, a woman who lives in a nearby shanty town. She declined to give her full name.
Investigators combed the site of the shooting, which was cordoned off with yellow tape, collecting spent cartridges and the slain miners’ bloodstained traditional weapons — machetes and spears.
Six firearms were recovered, including a service revolver from one of the police officers killed earlier in the week.