S. African police in deadly clash with striking miners
8/16/2012 9:40:00 PM -
MARIKANA, South Africa (AFP) - An illegal strike at a South African platinum mine run by leading global producer Lonmin claimed more lives Thursday as police clashed with miners armed with machetes in the most violent day of the weeklong standoff.
"Investigations are underway but yes, there were loss of lives," police ministry spokesman Zweli Mnisi told AFP in a text message.
Ten people, including two police, had already been killed since workers began their strike last Friday.
Police could not yet confirm how many people died in Thursday's violence, which shocked even this nation accustomed to raucous protests and horrific crime.
Hundreds of miners had camped for two days on a hillside near the mine outside the northwest town of Rustenburg, many of them armed with machetes, sticks or iron rods. Some danced with their machetes while singing protest songs.
On Thursday, London-listed Lonmin gave a final warning demanding that workers return to the job or face dismissal.
Police ordered the crowd to disperse, but the tensions boiled over with police firing teargas, water cannons and what was supposed to be rubber bullets.
Some miners retaliated with live fire. Police ministry spokesman Mnisi said one of the weapons was a gun stolen from an officer slain at the mine earlier in the week.
"Investigations are underway but yes, there were loss of lives," he told AFP in a text message.
"What happened today at Lonmin is something that was unfortunate and should not have happened in post-democracy because to protest is a legal and constitutional right of any citizen."
"However, these rights do not imply that people should be barbaric, intimidating and hold illegal gatherings," he said. "We had a situation where people who were armed to the teeth, attacked and killed other."
"For the record one of the firearms used, was that of our deceased police officer."
As the crowd fled, at least five people were left lying on the ground, according to an AFP reporter, some bleeding from their wounds.
Paramedics loaded some of the injured into ambulances, but Netcare emergency services declined to comment on the injuries.
Helicopters hovered overhead as police moved toward the workers, carrying rifles and wearing bulletproof vests. Other police rode on horseback, while residents of a nearby township watched the crackdown from a distance.
Lonmin spokeswoman Gillian Findlay declined to comment on the incident.
"It's really a police operation at the moment so we'd rather they comment on their operation," she said.
The strike which started last Friday spiralled into violent clashes between the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM), which is the dominant union at the mine, and members of the upstart Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (AMCU).
NUM spokesman Lesiba Seshoka told the local eNews channel that the AMCU president had tried to persuade the workers on the hill to return to work but they refused.
"After that rejection, they told him that they are prepared to die on the hill. They are not going to make a move, they are also going to ask their children to come and join them," he said.
"We really support that action from the police. We can't have a situation in which 2,000 workers hold the entire 25,000 workers to ransom," he said.
Lonmin said the strike has caused six days of lost production, equivalent to about 300,000 tonnes of ore, making it unlikely that Lonmin will reach its target of 750,000 saleable ounces of platinum.
NUM is one of South Africa's most powerful unions, with high-level connections to the ruling African National Congress. Deputy President Kgalema Motlante and ANC secretary general Gwede Mantashe were both once NUM leaders.
The clash between the two unions comes amid political tensions within the ANC as the party heads toward its leadership conference in December, where President Jacob Zuma is seeking a second term at the helm of the party.