South Africa's national police commissioner confirmed Friday that 34 miners have been killed and another 78 wounded during the Thursday clash between striking miners and police officers outside a platinum mine owned by Lonmin PLC, 40 miles northwest of Johannesburg.
The clash occurred after a week of unrest, when 3,000 miners began a protest to demand higher pay. The protest escalated into a deadly shootout on Thursday when both police officers and workers opened fire at each other.
Up to 3,000 police, backed by helicopters and armored vehicles, were facing off against an equal number of miners. Weapons used by the workers include guns they stole from two police officers they killed in an incident earlier in the week, but mainly comprised such items as home-made machetes, spears and clubs.
Police officers first used water cannon, and then stun grenades and tear-gas in an effort to disperse the strikers. Nevertheless, when a group of miners rushed through the underbrush and haze of tear gas at a line of police officers, officers immediately opened fire.
All this chaos resulted in one of the worst shootings in South Africa since the end of the Apartheid era.
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Before Thursday, there were at least 10 deaths at the mine in multiple incidents, including two police officers who were battered to death and another two mine security guards burned alive when strikers set their vehicle ablaze.
According to CBS News, strikers were demanding salary increases of 150 percent, from $625 to $1,563 per month, in response to the rising cost of living. Tired of poor housing and poverty, many say that they "are prepared to die."
Makhosi Mbongane, a 32-year-old winch operator at the mine, vowed that he was not going back to work and would not allow anyone else to do so either.
"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."
Workers who tried to go to work last Saturday were attacked by protesters, management and the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) said.
The company called the protest "illegal" on Thursday and issued a final ultimatum, threatening the workers with dismissal if they do not return to work. This ultimatum resulted in a widespread fury among workers, and led to the deadly shootout.
The violence was further exacerbated by an ongoing conflict between the rivalry two union labor groups, NUM and the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (AMCU). The leaders of both unions accuse one another of deliberately instigating violence and colluding with management.
The anger of the mineworkers underscores widespread poverty among black South Africans almost two decades after the fall of apartheid.
Today, almost half of South Africans are living below the poverty line, finding it difficult to overcome the historical disadvantages inherited from the injustices of the racist apartheid regime, under which the black majority population received minimal levels of education and opportunity.
According to NPR, over half of black South African youths are unemployed today.
Mining is South Africa's key industry and any disruption in production is bound to further damage the economy.
Lonmin is the third-largest platinum miner in the world. Its shares have dropped by as much as 20 percent since the start of the unrest, wiping some $610 million off the company's market value, according to the Associate Press.
The company said on Thursday that it had missed six days of production as a result of the unrest, but that it would meet the production goal of 750,000 ounces of platinum this year.
South Africa accounts for almost 80 percent of the world's platinum production, which is a rare and essential metal for many industrial applications, especially catalytic converters for internal combustion engine emission, as well as for uses in jewelry.
Gideon du Plessis, general secretary of South African trade union Solidarity, still warned the country would suffer huge losses from perceptions raised by the strike violence.
"South Africa's reputation as a stable investment destination is negatively affected by the violence, not only in the platinum industry but in general," he said.
Aside from the economic dimension of the strike, questions are also being raised about the conduct of the police.
The South Africa Police Service defended its officers' actions, saying in a statement that they were "viciously attacked by the group, using a variety of weapons, including firearms. The police, in order to protect their own lives and in self-defense, were forced to engage the group with force."
The claim was verified by various eyewitnesses, as NUM spokesman Lesiba Seshoka admitted that the union members did fire first and that they regretted the violence.
South African President Jacob Zuma is reportedly on his way back home from a regional summit in neighboring Mozambique. He said he was "shocked and dismayed at this senseless violence."
Lonmin chairman Roger Phillimore issued a statement saying that the company "deeply regrets" the violence occurred at one of its most profitable mines.
Some South African press compared the shootings to apartheid-era state violence.
Thursday's shooting were seen as a microcosm of the myriad problems that South Africa faces today, 18 years after the Apartheid era. Chronic poverty, low levels of education, as well as lack of basic services such as clean water and health care mark the daily lives of the average South African citizen.
The Sowetan newspaper summarized in a front-page editorial on Friday: the shootings "awaken us to the reality of the time bomb that has stopped ticking... Africans area pitted against each other... fighting for a bigger slice of the mineral wealth of the country," suggesting that the deadly clash on Thursday may have a greater implication on the future of the country and Africa as a whole.