MARIKANA, South Africa — South Africa’s police commissioner on Friday defended the actions of officers who opened fire on miners a day earlier in an episode that, she said, killed 34 people and wounded 78 during a wildcat strike at a platinum mine, a sharply higher toll than the immediate reports had forecast.
The commissioner, Riah Phiyega, described a desperate struggle by the police to contain the machete-wielding crowd of thousands of angry miners who broke through two lines of defense, leaving officers with no choice but to open fire with live ammunition.
“The militant group stormed towards the police firing shots and wielding dangerous weapons,” Commissioner Phiyega said. Previous attempts by the 500-strong police force to repel them with rubber bullets, water cannons and stun grenades had failed, she said in an emotional news conference here.
“This is no time for finger-pointing,” Commissioner Phiyega said. “It is a time for us to mourn the sad and black moment we experienced as a country.”
President Jacob Zuma cut short his trip to neighboring Mozambique for a regional summit to rush to the site of the bloody protest, some 60 miles northwest of Johannesburg. It was South Africa’s worst labor-related violence since 1994.
The shooting left a field strewed with bodies and a deepening fault line between the governing African National Congress and a nation that, 18 years after the end of apartheid, is increasingly impatient with deep poverty, rampant unemployment and yawning inequality.
The police retrieved six guns from the protesters, including one that had been taken from a police officer who was hacked to death by the workers earlier in the week, Commissioner Phiyega said, as well as many machetes, cudgels and spears.
Earlier on Friday, speaking to a local talk radio station, South Africa’s police minister, Nathi Mthethwa, had said that 30 people had been killed in the shooting.
In a scene replayed endlessly on television that reminded some South Africans of the days when the police of the apartheid government opened fire on protesters, heavily armed officers shot into a charging crowd of workers who walked off the job last Friday, demanding higher wages.
The strike has pitted the country’s largest mine workers union, which is closely allied with the governing A.N.C., against a radical upstart union demanding sharp increases in pay and faster action to improve the grim living and working standards for miners.
The strike and the government’s iron-fisted response are emblematic of the frustration with the slow pace of transforming South Africa’s largely white-owned business establishment and the growing perception that the A.N.C. and its allies have become too cozy with big business. As a result, many people here, especially the young, have looked for more radical solutions.
“N.U.M. has deserted us,” said one of the striking workers, who gave his name as Kelebone, referring to the older union, the National Union of Mineworkers, by its abbreviation. “N.U.M. is working with the white people and getting money. They forgot about the workers.”
Besides those killed on Thursday, 10 other people, including two police officers, had already died as a result of violence connected to the strike, which began on Aug. 10 when thousands of workers walked off the job, saying that their wages needed to be tripled.
Kelebone, who works as a winch operator, said he was paid about $500 per month for difficult, dangerous work.
“We need more money,” he said.
Like most of the workers who walked off the job last week, Kelebone, who is 28 and wears a long mane of dreadlocked hair, is a member of the Association of Mine Workers and Construction Union, a newer and more radical union. Lonmin, the London-based company that operates the mine, shut down operations on Tuesday amid the violent strike.
For the past three days, workers with machetes, sticks and wooden cudgels occupied an outcropping of rock near the mine, chanting and dancing, pledging their readiness to die if their demands were not met.
“The struggle, the struggle, it will liberate us,” they sang, shuffling in formation with their machetes held aloft.