An already volatile situation escalated on Thursday when police on guard at a platinum mine in South Africa opened fire on the mass of mining protesters. Last Friday mine workers went on strike, and the situation quickly surged from one of workers rights to inter-union fighting and tensions between police and workers.
A clash between the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) and the newer Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (AMCU) have pitted workers against each other and raised global awareness of the dire working and living conditions of many mineworkers in the region, who often live in poverty. The strike on Friday was mounted in an attempt to raise the monthly salary of an average miner from around $500 to $1,500.
The Telegraph notes that on Thursday, armed officers in armored vehicles were attempting to lay out barbed wire barricades in areas surrounding the Lonmin platinum mine, which had to stop production in the face of the violence. Some estimates claim that around 3,000 miners gathered in continuation of the week-long protest in the same area as the armored officers. Many of the protesters were chanting war songs.
Many reports note that police officers told the miners to let go of their weapons and to make their way home. USA Today reports that some miners did eventually give up their weapons, while others continued to chant and march towards the township. Police initially responded with a water cannon, then moved on to tear gas in an attempt to break up the crowd of frustrated workers.
The situation became a tragedy when a group of protesters reportedly rushed at a line of officers who fired their automatic weapons at the group, killing at least 34, and wounding an additional 78. CNN reports that a storm of gunfire lasted around three minutes before an officer shouted cease fire.
In the wake of the mounting violence, death, and tension between workers, unions and police forces, the owners of the Lonmin platinum mine had announced that workers were to return to the job on Friday or get fired. That announcement came just hours before the tragic increase in violence that same afternoon as police opened fire. Now the owners of the mine, the third largest producer of platinum in the world, may have to reassess their stance on the strike.
The bloodshed surrounding the mine had already been impressive in the week leading up to the round of shootings. 10 people were reported dead from violence between Friday and Wednesday, including eight mine workers and two police officers. Earlier this year another three people were killed during a strike at another South African platinum mine.
CNN notes that both the NUM or the AMCU, the two unions reported to be in a rivalry, have denied any involvement in the newest wave of violence. Previous reports had posited that the AMCU was trying to force workers under its wing through threats and violence.
At this moment, the situation remains highly volatile and uncertain. Many workers in the mine area have blamed police for firing unnecessarily at the crowd. Wives of some of the fallen miners gathered near the scene of the incident on Friday singing anti-police chants, the BBC reports. President Jacob Zuma condemned Thursday’s incident saying, “We have to uncover the truth about what happened here. I have decided to institute a commission of inquiry. It will enable us to get to the real cause of the incident and derive the necessary lessons.”
Photo Credit: Rob Lavinsky