South African police kill 18 in clashes with striking miners
SOUTH AFRICA witnessed bloodshed reminiscent of the apartheid era yesterday, when police killed as many as 18 miners after opening fire on a crowd of strikers.
Helicopters flew overhead and rows of police responded with full force after about 3,000 miners ignored an ultimatum to lay down their machetes and clubs.
First, the police tried to disperse the crowd with water cannon, before firing volleys of stun grenades and tear gas. But scores of miners appear to have charged out of the bush towards a line of officers.
Television Images showed the police immediately opening fire with rifles and handguns. Some, who appear to have switched their weapons to automatic, fired sustained bursts of gunfire.
The shooting went on until senior officers shouted "ceasefire". Bodies lay around in the dust as ambulances arrived to pick up the injured. Last night, police and health workers were still searching through the scrub for the dead and wounded.
The violence took place at Marikana mine, located in North West Province about 60 miles from Johannesburg, and owned by Lonmin, a London-listed company.
The situation appears to have been worsened by bitter rivalry within the trade union movement, particularly between the radical Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (AMCU), and the established National Union of Mineworkers (NUM).
Last Friday, thousands of rock drill operators started an illegal strike -- without the backing of the NUM -- and organised a march demanding the doubling of their monthly wages. Over the next few days, about 10 people were killed, including two policemen who were bludgeoned and hacked to death.
Rival unions have been trying to win members by resorting to violence and intimidation, splitting the workforce into factions.
Yesterday, police issued an ultimatum for the miners to disarm and enter talks. When this demand was ignored and thousands of strikers gathered, the situation escalated to the point where officers chose to open fire.
"We tried to disarm them all week and warned them to disperse and tried to find a way to move forward in an amicable way," said a police spokesman. "Today we were patient and we have been very, very patient and cooperative with the unions."
The NUM distanced itself from the strike, which was organised by its rival unions. Of the 25,000 workers at Marikana, only about 10pc are believed to have joined the stoppage.
Lesibo Shesoka, an NUM spokesman, said that some of the striking miners claimed they preferred to "die" rather than negotiate.
"They sent a message to say they would call for their children to come and join them. We don't know how many have died, but we can't have a situation in which 2,000 workers hold 25,000 other workers in the workforce to ransom. The police cannot just watch as our country is held to ransom by criminals."
The striking workers demanded a salary of £1,000 (€1270) a month: they currently earn less than half that amount. Rival trade unions accuse the NUM of colluding with Lonmin's management and the police to suppress the strike.
Lonmin, the world's third largest platinum producer, has taken a tough line against the stoppage, issuing a statement before yesterday's killings saying that any miners who failed to appear for their shifts would be sacked. The company has lost production of about 15,000 ounces of platinum, reducing its chances of reaching its target of 750,000 ounces this year.
It depends on the Marikana facilities for about 96pc of its platinum production. (© Daily Telegraph, London)