It was a tragic and shocking peak in a week of violence….and its not over yet.
The immediate trigger was an industrial dispute at a platinum mine about forty miles from Johannesburg, pitting not only workers against bosses but complicated by sour relations between two rival unions. Clashes quickly escalated last weekend, with two security guards and some of the striking miners losing their lives. A heavy police deployment followed, but failed to prevent the gradual slide into chaos; as guns and machetes were drawn, two officers were killed and around three miners shot dead.
That set the scene for Thursdays massacre. It is unclear exactly who fired first, a fact that is likely to take some time to establish, if ever. All that is known for sure is that as anger boiled over between police and miners, shots were exchanged until a volley from the police side, fired directly into the protesting crowd, left somewhere between twelve and eighteen dead.
Tonight as outrage spreads across the country and the world, a tense standoff continues.
No one can be in any doubt that the police were acting under extreme circumstances; this was no peaceful protest and reports from the ground suggest that pistols, grenades and even a gun seized from one of the murdered officers were fired towards police lines. However, unapologetic statements from the office of Police Minister Nathi Mthethwa that officers ‘did their best’ against ‘barbaric hard-core criminals’ simply appear as an attempt to justify a slaughter that was frankly unacceptable for any supposedly democratic police force to carry out.
The officers involved should be suspended immediately pending a full investigation, with criminal charges swiftly brought where necessary. At the same time, the unions should urgently disarm striking miners on the ground and hand over those involved in earlier killings. Unions played a significant role in winning democratic rights for South Africans, but the freedom to strike and protest is now being undermined by images of machete wielding thugs murdering their own countrymen.
Beyond this there is an critical need for the government of Jacob Zuma to address some of the underlying nationwide issues that sit behind both the strike and the response. Amnesty International’s 2012 Report underscored the massive inequality and rampant corruption that plagues South Africa, as well as the consistent excesses of force by the law enforcers throughout the country. Unless these are tackled, the militant unions, violent protests and police atrocities that are tonight generating comparisons with the apartheid era, are likely to continue long into the future.