MARIKANA, South Africa — Frantic wives searched for missing loved ones while some miners vowed to fight to the death Friday as police announced 34 people were dead and 78 wounded after officers opened fire on striking miners a day earlier.
Wives of miners took the place of their dead or wounded husbands Friday in staging a protest at the Lonmin platinum mine northwest of Johannesburg. But this time, instead of asking for higher wages as the miners had, the women demanded to know why police fired on the miners Thursday with automatic rifles, pistols and shotguns. Many of the strikers were armed with spears, machetes and clubs as they rushed toward the officers.
Police said at a news conference that they fired in self-defense, noting that strikers possessed a pistol taken from a police officer they beat to death Monday. But video footage indicates the miners may have been trying to flee tear gas that police fired at them moments earlier.
As the miners rushed away from a hill they had occupied and that was being tear-gassed, police opened fire. Police were perhaps jumpy, knowing that the strikers were armed and that two officers died earlier in the week.
“Police stop shooting our husbands and sons,” read a banner carried by the women Friday. They kneeled before shotgun-toting police and sang a protest song, saying, “What have we done?” in the Xhosa language.
National Police Chief Mangwashi Victoria Phiyega told a packed news conference that Thursday was a dark day for South Africa and that it was no time for pointing fingers, even as people compared the shootings to apartheid-era government violence, and political parties and labor unions demanded an investigation.
President Jacob Zuma returned home from a summit in Mozambique and announced an official inquiry into the killings, which he called shocking and tragic. Makhosi Mbongane, a 32-year-old winch operator, said mine managers should have come to the striking workers rather than send police. Strikers were demanding monthly salary raises from $625 to $1,563. Mbongane 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 said. “If they employ other people, they won’t be able to work either. We will stay here and kill them.”
Research released by the Bench Marks Foundation, a nongovernmental organization monitoring the practices of multinational mining corporations, found that Lonmin has a bad track record for high fatalities and keeping workers in “very poor living conditions.” According to the report released Tuesday, workers often live in deteriorating shacks without electricity. Some children suffer from chronic illnesses because of sewage spills from broken drainage.
The mining company said earlier that it would withhold comment on the report until the conflict cooled down.