A sad memory of South Africa’s Apartheid merciless killing of Black people reemerged on Thursday with the killing of 18mine workers and the wounding of many more in British mine company
Up to 18 people were killed after South African police opened fire on striking workers allegedly armed with sticks and machetes.
The blood spilling brutal scenes took place at the Marikana platinum mine, which owned by British miner Lonmin.
Pictures showed bodies lying on the ground in pools of blood while many not dead reeled in blood.
Scores of police, armed with automatic rifles and pistols, fired on the protesters, leaving many more injured.
Footage broadcast on South African television showed police letting off a volley of gunfire at the mine, 60 miles northwest of Johannesburg.
The shootings recalled the gory images of white police firing at anti-apartheid protesters in the 1960s and 1970s, but in this case it was mostly black police firing at black mine workers.
Lonmin, the world’s third biggest platinum miner, had threatened to sack about 3,000 rock drilling operators if they failed to end a wildcat pay strike at its flagship Marikana mine, where 96 per cent of all the company’s platinum production comes from.
The company, which is registered on the London Stock Exchange and has its UK headquarters in central London, says it has so far lost six days of production, which represents ‘300,000 tonnes of ore, or 15,000 platinum equivalent ounces’.
The unrest at the mine began last Friday as some 3,000 workers walked off the job over pay in what management described as an illegal strike.
Those who tried to go to work on Saturday were said to have been attacked, according to management and the country’s National Union of Mineworkers.
In a statement, Lonmin said striking workers would be sacked if they did not appear at their shifts today. ‘The striking (workers) remain armed and away from work,’ the statement read. ‘This is illegal.
The authorities claim the crowd killed two security guards on Sunday by setting their car ablaze, and that angry mobs killed two other workers and overpowered police, killing two officers by Monday.
The next day, operations at the mines appeared to come to a standstill as workers stayed away.
Police moved in on striking workers gathered near the mine yesterday and urged them to give up their weapons, including machetes and clubs.
Some left, though others began war chants and soon started marching toward the township near the mine.
Police used a water cannon, stun grenades and tear gas to try to break up the crowd.
A group of miners are reported to have the rushed suddenly through the scrub and underbrush at a line of officers.
Television images showed officers opening fire, with miners falling to the ground.
The clashes have been fuelled by struggles between the dominant NUM and the upstart Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union.
Lonmin, previously known as Lonrho, formed in the UK in 1909. It was involved in a series of takeovers during the 1970s and was criticised by then prime minister Edward Heath for being the ‘unacceptable face of capitalism’, following a sanctions scandal involving trade with what was then Rhodesia – now Zimbabwe.
New York Times reported that that the strike and the government’s iron-fisted response are emblematic of the frustration with the slow pace of transforming South Africa’s largely white-owned business establishment and the growing perception that the A.N.C. and its allies have become too cozy with big business. As a result, many people here, especially the young, have looked for more radical solutions.
“N.U.M. has deserted us,” said one of the striking workers, who gave his name as Kelebone, referring to the older union, the National Union of Mineworkers, by its abbreviation. “N.U.M. is working with the white people and getting money. They forgot about the workers.”
At least six bodies were visible after the shooting ended, and SAPA, South Africa’s main news agency, reported that 18 people had been killed. Ten other people, including two police officers, had already died as a result of violence connected to the strike, which began Friday when thousands of workers walked off the job, saying that their wages needed to be tripled.
Kelebone, who works as a winch operator, said he was paid about $500 per month for difficult, dangerous work.
“We need more money,” he said.
Like most of the workers who walked off the job last week, Kelebone, who is 28 and wears a long mane of dreadlocked hair, is a member of the Association of Mine Workers and Construction Union, a newer and more radical union. Lonmin, the London-based company that operates the mine, shut down operations on Tuesday amid the violent strike.
For the past three days, workers with machetes, sticks and wooden cudgels occupied an outcropping of rock near the mine, chanting and dancing, pledging their readiness to die if their demands were not met.
“The struggle, the struggle, it will liberate us,” they sang, shuffling in formation with their machetes held aloft.
Just before 4 p.m. on Thursday, after repeated warnings to the crowd of about 3,000 miners to disarm and disperse, the police began firing tear gas and water cannons to try to get them to leave, witnesses said. In video captured by several news organizations, the police appeared to fire upon a group of workers who charged toward them.
The police in post-apartheid South Africa have been accused of using deadly strong-arm tactics to suppress unrest before, but the action on Thursday surprised many South Africans and drew quick condemnation.
“Regardless of what police may argue about provocation, there is no possible justification for shooting into a crowd with rifles and handguns,” Frans Cronje of the South African Institute of Race Relations said on Twitter. Helen Zille, leader of the opposition Democratic Alliance, called the shootings a massacre.
President Jacob Zuma condemned the violence but refrained from criticizing the police, saying in a statement that “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 he had “instructed law enforcement agencies to do everything possible to bring the situation under control and to bring the perpetrators of violence to book.”
Frans Baleni, general secretary of the National Union of Mineworkers, defended the police in an interview with Kaya FM, a radio station.
“The police were patient, but these people were extremely armed with dangerous weapons,” he said.
The strike reflected a deep anger at the slow pace of South Africa’s transformation. When Joyce Lebelo moved to the informal settlement near a platinum mine in 1998, she built only a tiny shack, thinking the new government would soon provide her with a proper house. She is still waiting.
“When we voted, we didn’t think we would spend 10 years living in a shack,” she said, sitting beneath the tin roof of her tin-walled house, which she has expanded over the years to include a kitchen, bedrooms, a dining room and wall-to-wall carpeting. But bricks and mortar, not to mention running water and electricity, are still a distant dream.
“The promises they made, they have not delivered,” Ms. Lebelo said. “The people who got power are fat and rich. They have forgotten the people at the bottom.”
And Ms. Lebelo, who has a job cooking school lunches and whose husband works as a driver at a platinum mine, is one of the lucky ones: at least her family has two incomes.
Unemployment is a major problem in mining areas, said John Capel of the Bench Marks Foundation, a research and advocacy organization that studies mining communities.
“There is a kind of desperation, a lack of hope and a resentment for the mining industry and the government,” Mr. Capel said. “We have been warning for years of these potential uprisings. People are angry.”
A senior member of the rival union, A.M.C.U., says that workers are angry and feel betrayed by the party that liberated South Africa.
“We made the A.N.C. what it is today, but they have no time for us,” the union leader said, asking that his name be withheld because he feared reprisals from the government. “Nothing has changed, only the people on top, and they just keep getting more money