The worst incident came on Thursday at a mine called Marikana, which is owned by Lonmin PLC, the world's third-largest supplier of platinum. Police officers opened fire on an advancing group of protesters, claiming self-defense since two officers had been killed by demonstrators earlier in the week.
The bullets -- and the miners' scrambling to avoid the lines of fire -- kicked up dust. After it settled, officials counted 34 of the demonstrators' corpses on the ground.
Declaring the state of mourning in a statement over the weekend, President Jacob Zuma recognized that the underlying struggle was far from over.
"We must avoid finger-pointing and recrimination. We must unite against violence from whatever quarter. We must reaffirm our belief in peace, stability and order and in building a caring society free of crime and violence," he said.
It is clear that the country of South Africa, which broke free from apartheid only 18 years ago, still suffers from serious societal turmoil. But these new conflicts are very different from the ones that nearly tore the country apart during its period of white rule.
Apart from Apartheid
For many, Thursday's incident recalled a 1960 massacre in the township of Sharpeville, when the apartheid regime's police responded to a public protest by firing in to an unarmed crowd and killing 69. The demonstrators had gathered to protest segregation laws.
But the central conflict in South Africa has changed since then. Segregation is no longer legal, elections are generally fair, and the national government is made up of mostly black politicians. Security forces are racially diverse -- Thursday's attack was carried out by a mixed force of black and white officers.
But the two protests, separated by decades of progress, have one fundamental commonality: In each case, the demonstrators saw themselves as an underclass, ignored and underrepresented by the powers that be. While the division between black and white has blurred in recent decades, the line between the haves and have-nots remains quite clear.
To be sure, racial inequalities are still present. Africa's white citizens, who make up about 10 percent of the population, have lower levels of unemployment and poverty than their black counterparts. But formerly suppressed groups have risen to power, including the African National Congress -- the ruling party since 1994 elections -- and the Congress of South African Trade Union, a close ANC partner that has historically represented black workers.
It's a far cry from the apartheid era, but this rising tide has not lifted all boats. South Africa's GDP of more than $408 billion makes it the largest economy on the continent; it is widely considered one of the world's nascent economic powerhouses. But the country also has one of the world's biggest income gaps. Poverty is widespread, inequality is endemic and unemployment is up around 25 percent.
The ANC and COSATU have done plenty to improve the overall quality of life for South Africa's 48.8 million people since 1994, but infighting and inefficiency have plagued both organizations. Thursday's protests, which were instigated by a new upstart union that has broken with COSATU, underscore a new dynamic -- the organizations that once wrested power from an oppressive minority are now being targeted as oppressors themselves.
All Union, No Unity
The Marikana protest was one of many recent uprisings instigated not by the main miners' union, but by a younger organization whose rise has divided South Africa's miners.
The Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union was formed in 1998. Today, it is estimated to have about 50,000 members. This organization is considered more militant than South Africa's preeminent miners' union, the National Union of Mineworkers.
The NUM is affiliated with COSATU; as such, it has close ties with South Africa's ruling ANC party. It is about 300,000 members strong -- but that figure has been declining in recent months.
That's because the AMCU and the NUM are engaged in a turf war, with the young and radical AMCU accusing the established NUM of putting politics and profits ahead of people.
The NUM does have some clear ties to both the government and mining industry executives. Cyril Ramaphosa, one of South Africa's most powerful politicians and businessmen, was a onetime leader of the NUM and played a huge role in building the union's influence. He is also on the ANC's National Executive Committee -- and he sits on the board of Lonmin, according to Reuters.
In an attempt to undercut the NUM's powerful connections, the AMCU acted strategically at Marikana; they focused specifically on rock drillers, luring them with promises of pay increases. These employees are immensely valuable to any mining enterprise; they require specific education, are willing to work hard in dangerous conditions, and are perennially in high demand.
About 3,000 rock drillers were at the core of the Marikana protests. Without them, Lonmin's temporary operations shutdown was unavoidable.
The AMCU also raised support for itself by accusing NUM officials of holding shares in mining corporations, which the NUM denies.
Meanwhile, NUM members have accused the AMCU of breaking laws in its attempts to organize workers, condoning the use of violence, and advocating for communism. Its leaders deny these allegations, which are strikingly ironic in view of the fact that the South African Communist Party has been an official ally of the ANC and COSATU for decades.
"We don't align ourselves with any political party. We are an apolitical union," said AMCU President Joseph Mathunjwa during a televised press conference in June.
"We need to not to be in any alliance to any ruling party... We have to be the vanguard [on behalf] of our members to see whether what we voted for -- the government that is in place -- delivers what it is supposed to deliver."
But after last week's massacre, the AMCU is under closer scrutiny. Its anti-NUM message threatens to drive a wedge right down the middle of South Africa's working class.
Mining Their Own Grave
That wedge could come in handy for South Africa's mining corporations.
Mining is big business in South Africa. According to the Chamber of Mines, the industry creates about 1 million jobs and accounts for about 18 percent of national GDP. But a look around the periphery of any major mining zone will show that these revenues don't do much for the laborers themselves.
Outside of Marikana, for instance, a sprawling shantytown has become home for many mine workers and their families. Agence France-Presse reports that in this makeshift town, the ground is littered and the homes are ramshackle. Food is often scarce, and there is only limited access to running water and electricity.
These days, laborers aren't the only ones struggling. The mining industry as a whole has been in trouble for the last few years, with a global recession driving down demand for platinum and other precious metals. Thursday's violence further dims platinum's prospects, and Lonmin is taking the biggest hit of all. Marikana is its only operational mine, and a suspension of activity there has led to a share devaluation of about 15 percent.
Union opponents argue that this is exactly the wrong time for workers to demand higher wages.
Even worse: anything that cuts into mining industry revenues has greater implications for South African society. The government needs money in order to ameliorate some of the social problems that plague the country as a whole: a dismal education system, endemic unemployment, frequent crime and high rates of HIV infection. The ANC is working to address these problems -- today, reports Bloomberg, about a third of the population receives some sort of social welfare.
Higher wages for miners would help the hundreds of thousands of workers who live in poverty, but they would also decrease industry revenues that help to fill public coffers. This could hurt laborers of every other industry, not to mention the unemployed.
For the ANC, this was a thorny catch-22 even before the bloody episode at Marikana. Now that the protests have erupted in violence that recalls the brutalities of the apartheid era, it seems that the economic slowdown of recent years is at risk of turning into a backslide.