Longstanding tensions in South Africa took physical form this week as striking platinum workers were shot down by police, leaving 34 dead and 78 wounded. President Jacob Zuma hurried to an emergency visit of the mine to bring some composure to the violence.
3,000 platinum miners went on strike last week, demanding a pay increase from $625 a month to $1,563. Miners like Makhosi Mbongane, a 32-year-old winch operator, stated his purposes in violent terms:
“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.”
The strikers stationed themselves on a hill near the mines; footage before the massacre shows them waving machetes and licking the blades of homemade spears. The protesters brutally hacked up two officers on Tuesday, taking their guns, so the tensions were set for Thursday.
On Thursday afternoon, police deployed a water canon, stun grenades, and tear gas to disperse the strikers. When a group of miners made a rush for police, officers opened fire, killing dozens.
Some commentators view such events as reverberations of racist violence from apartheid control in the 1960s and 1970s, though most of the police involved were black this time.
“Obviously the issues that have led to this are not the same as the past, but the response and the outcome is similar,” Lucy Holborn, a research manger, told Reuters.
“It has happened in this country before where the apartheid regime treated black people like objects,” said a South African paper, the Sowetan. “It is continuing in a different guise now.” The mines are owned by a London based company.
The more immediate tensions are between the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM), which has been dominate for 25 years and has close ties with the African National Congress (ANC) (of whom current president Jacob Zuma is the ruling member), and a new group, th Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (AMCU).
“There is clearly an element in this that a key supporter of the ANC – the NUM — has come under threat from these protesting workers,” said Nic Borain, who is an independent political analyst. AMCU members have put hits out on members of NUM. The AMCU has also ordered the striking miners to be “prepared to die” to defend their posts at protest hill. Aside from the two police officers the strikers have killed this week, they also burned alive two mine security guards by igniting their vehicles.