South Africa Begins Investigation Into Fatal Police Mine Shooting

south african policeJOHANNESBURG — Frantic wives searched for missing loved ones, President Jacob Zuma rushed home from a regional summit and some miners vowed a fight to the death Friday as police (pictured) finally announced the toll from the previous day’s shooting by officers of striking platinum miners: 34 dead and 78 wounded.

RELATED: Shares In African Miner Lonmin Dive After Violence

Police Chief Mangwashi Victoria Phiyega said that Thursday was a dark day for South Africa and no time for pointing fingers, as people compared the shootings to apartheid-era state violence and political parties and labor unions demanded an investigation. Phiyega took over in June after two police commissioners were indicted for corruption and other charges. She already had her work cut out trying to reform a corrupt and scandal-ridden force.

Thursday’s shootings are seen as a microcosm of the myriad problems facing South Africa 18 years after white racist rule ended, including growing inequality between a white minority joined by a small black elite while most blacks endure high unemployment and inadequate housing, health care and education.

Zuma’s government has played down demands that South Africa’s mines and farms be nationalized. His party’s powerful youth wing argues that nationalization is the only way to redress the evils of the apartheid past. Zuma’s office confirmed that he had left a regional summit in Mozambique and was on his way to the mine, 70 kilometers (40 miles) northwest of Johannesburg.

The shootings “awaken us to the reality of the time bomb that has stopped ticking – it has exploded,” The Sowetan newspaper said in a front-page editorial Friday. “Africans area pitted against each other… They are fighting for a bigger slice of the mineral wealth of the country.”

At hospitals in the area, people gathered, hoping to find missing family members among the wounded. At the scrubland scene of the killings, a woman carrying a baby on her back said she was looking for a missing miner.

“My husband left yesterday morning at 7 a.m. to come to the protest and he never came back,” said Nobantu Mkhuze.

At least 10 other people were killed during the week-old strike, including two police officers battered to death by strikers and two mine security guards burned alive when strikers set their vehicle ablaze.

Makhosi Mbongane, a 32-year-old winch operator, said mine managers should have come to the striking workers rather than send police. Strikers were demanding monthly salary raises from $625 to $1,563. Mbongane vowed that he was not going back to work and would not allow anyone else to do so either.

“They can beat us, kill us and kick and trample on us with their feet, do whatever they want to do, we aren’t going to go back to work,” he told The Associated Press. “If they employ other people they won’t be able to work either, we will stay here and kill them.”

Shares in platinum miner Lonmin PLC fell as much as 8 percent Friday after it was revealed Friday that South African police officers killed more than 30 striking miners at the company’s mine. Since violence broke out last weekend at the Marikana mine, shares have fallen by as much as 20 percent, wiping some 390 million pounds ($610 million) off the company’s market value. The company, the world’s third-largest platinum miner, has also been hit by Thursday’s announcement that Chief Executive Ian Farmer is hospitalized with a serious illness.

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On a chilly, sunlit Friday morning, police investigators and forensic experts watched by about 100 people combed the scene of the shooting, planting multicolored cones and numbered placards to mark evidence amid the dirt and bushes where the shooting took place. Police also searched the rocky outcropping where thousands of miners had gathered daily to strike.

The South Africa Police Service defended officers’ actions, saying in a statement that they were “viciously attacked by the group, using a variety of weapons, including firearms. The police, in order to protect their own lives and in self-defense, were forced to engage the group with force.”

Shocked South Africans watched replay after replay of video of the shooting that erupted Thursday afternoon after police used water cannon, and then stun grenades and tear gas in an effort to disperse the strikers and get them to hand over their home-made machetes, clubs and home-made spears. Some miners did leave, though others carrying weapons began war chants and marched toward the township near the mine.

Suddenly, a group of miners rushed through the underbrush and haze of tear gas at a line of police officers. Officers immediately opened fire, with miners falling to the ground. Dozens of shots were fired by police armed with automatic rifles and pistols.

By the time officers shouted “Cease fire!” bodies were lying in the dust, some pouring blood.

Poor South Africans protest daily across the country for basic services like running water, housing and better health and education – all of which were hoped for when racist white rule ended with the first democratic elections in 1994. Protests often turn violent, with people charging that ANC leaders have joined the white minority that continues to enrich itself while life becomes ever harder for the black majority.

Police often are accused of using undue force. Still, Thursday’s shooting appalled the country, recalling images of white police firing at anti-apartheid protesters in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s, though in this case it was mostly black police firing at black mine workers.

It remains unclear what sparked the miners’ fatal charge at police. Mnisi, the police ministry spokesman, claimed the miners shot at police as well, using one of the weapons they stole from two policemen whom they beat to death on Monday.

“We had a situation where people who were armed to the teeth, attack and killed others – even police officers,” the spokesman said in a statement Thursday night. “What should police do in such situations when clearly what they are face with are armed and hardcore criminals who murder police?”

Zuma said Thursday that he was “shocked and dismayed at this senseless violence.”

“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,” Zuma said in a statement.

Lonmin PLC chairman Roger Phillimore issued a statement F
riday saying the
deaths were deeply regretted.

While the initial walkout and protest focused on wages, violence has been fueled by the struggles between the dominant National Union of Mineworkers and the upstart and more radical Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union.

NUM secretary-general Frans Baleni has said that some of his union members were on a hit list, including a shop steward killed Tuesday by strikers.

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