South African mine death toll hits 34


Police in South Africa have defended their actions after 34 workers were killed yesterday after police shot striking miners near Lonmin's Marikana platinum-mining complex.

South African police were forced to open fire to protect themselves from charging armed protesters, Police Commissioner Riah Phiyega said today.

She told a news conference that 78 people were injured and 259 arrested in the violence, adding: "The police members had to employ force to protect themselves from the charging group."

Heavily armed South African police patrolled the mine after the clashes, which drew comparisons with apartheid-era brutality.

President Jacob Zuma cut short a visit to a regional summit in neighbouring Mozambique to head to the mine. "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 in a statement.

Mr Zuma said he was "shocked and dismayed" at what was one of the bloodiest police operations since the end of white-minority rule in 1994.

After more than 12 hours of official silence, Police Minister Nathi Mthethwa this morning confirmed at least 30 people had died in the security operation at the mine, 100km northwest of Johannesburg.

Mr Mthethwa defended the police, saying officers had come under fire from the miners, members of the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (AMCU), an upstart group that is challenging the 25-year dominance of the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM), a close ally of the ruling ANC.

"From amongst the crowd, people opened fire on police and the police retaliated," he said in earlier comments.

Police opened fire with automatic weapons when 3,000 striking drill operators armed with machetes and sticks ignored orders to disperse.

Warning: The video below contains graphic scenes

Police crime scene investigators today searched the site of the shooting, which was cordoned off with yellow tape, collecting spent cartridges and bloodstained traditional weapons like machetes and spears which were carried by the slain miners. They said firearms were also recovered at the scene.

Newspaper headlines declaring 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.

The images, along with television footage showing a phalanx of officers opening up with automatic weapons on a small group of men in blankets and T-shirts, rekindled uncomfortable memories of South Africa's racist past.

AMCU leaders have been criticised for telling the striking miners they were "prepared to die" rather than move from their protest hill.

Pre-crackdown footage of dancing miners waving machetes and licking the blades of home-made spears also raised similar questions about the habitual use of violence in industrial action 18 years after the end of apartheid.

"This culture of violence and protest, it must somehow be changed," said John Robbie, a prominent Johannesburg radio host. "You can't act like a Zulu impi in an industrial dispute in this day and age."

Prior to yesterday's violence, 10 people - including two policemen - had died in nearly a week of fighting between AMCU and NUM factions at Marikana, the latest outburst of unrest from a rumbling eight-month union turf war in the platinum sector.

London-headquartered Lonmin has been forced to shut down all its platinum operations, which account for 12 per cent of global output, and its shares have fallen more than 13 per cent since inter-union rivalry at Marikana boiled over a week ago.

South Africa is home to 80 per cent of the world's known platinum reserves, but rising power and labour costs and a steep decline in the price of the precious metal this year has left many mines struggling to stay afloat.

At least three people were killed in fighting in January that led to a six-week closure of the world's largest platinum mine, run nearby by Impala Platinum.

Despite promises of a better life for all South Africa's 50 million people, the ANC has struggled to provide basic services to millions in poor black townships.

Efforts to redress the economic inequalities of apartheid have had mixed results. The mining sector comes in for particular criticism from radical ANC factions as a bastion of "white monopoly capital".