South African police killed 34 striking workers at Lonmin Plc (LMI)’s Marikana platinum-mining complex yesterday, the worst death toll in police action since the end of apartheid in 1994.
In addition to the dead 78 people were injured and 259 arrested, Riah Phiyega, the country’s police commissioner, told reporters at the mine today. Six firearms were recovered from protesters including one that had belonged to a police officer murdered in earlier violence at the mine this week, she said.
Violence erupted yesterday after police used tear gas and live ammunition to disperse thousands of workers gathered on a hilltop near the mine. Clashes between rival labor unions at the mine led to a six-day standoff with police in which 10 people had already died, including two officers. Police say they acted in self-defense yesterday after coming under attack from the workers armed with spears, machetes and pistols.
“There was absolutely nothing else police could have done,” Police Minister Nathi Mthethwa said in an interview with Johannesburg’s 702 Talk Radio. “People should not ignore the laws of the land.”
The clashes at Marikana mine this week were triggered by fighting between rival labor unions, according to Lonmin. The Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union is seeking to recruit members at the mine to challenge the dominance of the National Union of Mineworkers.
“It’s a national tragedy,” Dianne Kohler Barnard, a spokeswoman on police matters for the opposition Democratic Alliance party, said in a phone interview. “An independent inquiry must take place.”
This isn’t the first incident of South African police using violence to quell public protests. Eight police officers are currently facing charges related to the death of an unarmed protester, Andries Tatane, in Ficksburg in the central Free State province, in April 2011. He was shot and beaten by police during a community protest over the lack of delivery of government services. Photos of his death were broadcast on national television and published in newspapers, stoking condemnation from opposition political parties.
“After we became a democracy, nobody bothered to train them to deal with this sort of situation,” Steven Friedman, director of the Centre for the Study of Democracy at the University of Johannesburg, said in a phone interview today. “Some police officers were killed earlier in the week and that made police even more disinclined to do what police are supposed to do, which is to stop violence, rather than cause violence.”
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