Deaths of 35 put South African police on defensive


SOUTH AFRICA’S police were forced to defend their actions yesterday after violent clashes on Thursday between armed officers and striking miners at a platinum mine in the North West province left 35 dead and 78 injured.

National police commissioner Riah Phiyega said yesterday at a press conference at the Lonmin mine that her men opened fire in self-defence after coming under attack from armed mine workers who refused to lay down weapons.

“The militant group stormed toward the police, firing shots and wielding dangerous weapons,” she said, adding, “Police retreated systematically and were forced to utilise maximum force to defend themselves.” When asked who gave the order to use deadly force, Ms Phiyega said after receiving information that the miners would not hand over weapons or leave their position, she made the call.

“As commissioner, I gave police the responsibility to execute the task they needed to do,” she said.

Video footage of police trying to disperse miners through negotiations and crowd-control tactics, with officers trying to split the large group of armed men using tear gas, water cannons, stun grenades and rubber bullets, was played for the media.

The circumstances of the killings, which have been compared with one of the worst massacres of the apartheid era, has led to broad debate on who was to blame. Websites and internet chat platforms were alive with debate, with some people blaming the police, others the company for not giving in to the demands of poorly paid workers, and others the miners for refusing to give up arms.

South Africa’s Institute of Race Relations condemned the police approach to the incident, comparing it to the 1960 Sharpeville massacre in which 69 people died and 180 were badly wounded.

There was “clear evidence that policemen randomly shot into the crowd. There is also evidence of their continuing to shoot after a number of bodies can be seen dropping and others turning to run.”

Tensions had been high at the mine since last weekend, when 10 people, including three policemen and two security guards, were killed by miners taking part in an illegal strike.

Both incidents are linked to a rivalry between the established National Union of Mineworkers and the more militant Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (Amcu) over recognition agreements at the mine. In addition, the miners, who claim they are paid about €400 a month, are seeking a pay rise to €1,250.

At a second press conference in Johannesburg, Amcu president Joseph Mathunjwa told reporters that prior to the shooting he had urged his members to obey the police and leave the hill they occupied just outside the mine.

“I told them to leave . . . I pleaded, I pleaded,” Mr Mathunjwa said tearfully, adding: “We got in our cars and left . . . After a few minutes the phone rang [about the shooting]. I wanted to turn back and go and die with my comrades.”

The Independent Police Investigative Directorate confirmed yesterday that an inquiry had been launched to establish whether the officers involved had responded proportionally to the threat posed by the miners. The police have maintained they were fired upon first by the advancing miners.

Lonmin chairperson Roger Phillimore said in a statement the platinum producer was treating the incident “with the utmost seriousness”. He denied the company’s labour relations were to blame.

“It goes without saying that we deeply regret the further loss of life in what is clearly a public order, rather than labour relations-associated, matter,” he concluded.