South Africa mine shootings: 'Police are against us. That's apartheid'

The South African force's killing of 34 striking miners, and the arrest of hundreds more, are all too reminiscent of the bad old days of white rule, victims' families tell Alex Duval Smith

At the age of 22, Katiso Mosebetsane is too young to remember apartheid in South Africa. But he says the past week has taught him what it must have been like. "You have the employer, the government, the police and even the trade union working together. They are supposed to look after you but they are against the people – that's apartheid."

Mr Mosebetsane has come to Marikana with his aunt, Anna, and sister, Veronica, from the rural Eastern Cape. After the killing by police on 16 August of 34 striking miners, the family of 49-year-old winch operator Thabiso tried desperately to reach him on his mobile phone. After four days of calling in vain, they borrowed money and made the 620-mile journey.

Now they sit, like strangers in their migrant breadwinner's tidy shack, processing emotions of confusion, grief and anger. "In the end, I found him in a morgue," said Katiso.

"We do not know this area. We are country people who speak isiXhosa. But no one helped us. I went to all the police stations in the area, to all the hospitals and to the morgues. I found him in the Rustenburg morgue. Now we need to take his body back to our village, Mataitile," he said, leaving an empty silence, which seemed intended to invite a divine solution to the daunting logistical challenge ahead.

The head-on view from Thabiso's shack is of a parched, litter-strewn field beneath Lonmin's giant processing plant. South Africa's platinum belt, which holds 80 per cent of the world's known stocks of the metal, has been disfigured by 40 years of mining.

Platinum's main use is in catalytic converters, to clean the exhaust fumes of cars. But cleanliness, let alone prettiness or quality of life, never seems to have been on the agenda for the 25,000 men who travel from all over southern Africa to mine it here. The municipality has clearly decided that picking up litter around the shacks is Lonmin's job. Lonmin apparently sees the shacks as overflow housing, so it's just not done. Goats munch on it.

Even the settlement that ought to be the neat bit of Marikana – around the mine office, the hostels and the Lonmin hospital – looks neglected. Further away, near the Chinese shops, there is a railway line but it is for ore, not passengers. Massive pylons hold up a web of megawatt cables from electricity substations to the processing plant. Weather-worn ventilation shafts pepper the landscape and emit a constant hum. It is all about productivity; to produce 1oz of platinum, rock drillers operating 50lb hand-held machines have to break about 10 tons of raw ore below ground.

Like no other event since majority rule, the Marikana killings threw into sharp focus the fragile relationship established at the end of apartheid in 1994 between government, employers, trade unions, law enforcers, the justice system and ordinary people.

Yesterday those parties were sitting in the Lonmin offices – ringed with two layers of police razor wire – in a bid to achieve a handshake as a prelude to possible wage talks. Outside, on the grass, a couple of hundred miners waited for news. But it is very difficult to imagine any of these men going back to work any time soon. The only news that reached them yesterday were reports that police had opened fire with rubber bullets on gold miners. The Marikana miners want 12,500 rand (£933) a month – a three-fold increase for some – and "if we don't get it the mine can close", said a miner from Mozambique.

Thabiso Mosebetsane was a typical Marikana miner. "He worked in a gold mine before but seven years ago he started at Lonmin," said Anna, 41. "We knew nothing of his life here, only that he was a member of the National Union of Mineworkers. He was like so many of our South African men – working hard to support five children and a granny in the Eastern Cape. We only saw him at Christmas."

Since arriving, she said, she had discovered that he paid 3,000R a month in rent for his shack, and a further 6,000R for electricity, water and the use of an outside toilet.

Marikana is blanketed in silence. Police riot control vehicles patrol the streets at snail's pace. No one says much. The processing plant emits a lazy plume of smoke – the boilers are running but not the conveyor belts. The only activity is at the taxi rank, where long-distance minibuses have turned up for business. It is Christmas for them: beds, fridges and cookers are being loaded on to trailers and taken to Swaziland, Lesotho and the Eastern Cape, where most of the dead miners were from.

Forty-four people died here last month; 34 on August 16 and a further 10 – including two police officers and two security guards – in the six strike days leading up to the disastrous police operation. On top of that, 78 men have been injured and 270 arrested, though about half were released yesterday after the prosecution dropped controversial murder charges.

The government appointed an inter-ministerial committee, briefed to help the families of the dead and injured, issue death certificates, arrange counselling and help arrange and pay for funerals. But Thabiso Mosebetsane's family has not felt supported by them. "There is an office over there at Lonmin," said Katiso. "They say they will send the body to the Eastern Cape and that the funeral will happen next Saturday. But we have many questions. Those people do not take time to explain. They treat us like we are inconvenient to them."

His view sums up much of South Africa's view of the country's establishment in the wake of Marikana. The African National Congress government's credentials to govern have been sliding. Around the country, violent service delivery protests have become a daily reality. Beset with crime and unemployment rates exceeding 50 per cent, township residents have lost patience with corrupt local politicians who have failed to deliver water, sanitation or textbooks.

Nationally, the ANC's governing alliance – consisting of the NUM-affiliated Confederation of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu) and the Communist Party – is perceived as being too cosy with the white-led corporations they opposed during apartheid. Marikana has an emblematic example of this in former NUM leader and ANC heavyweight Cyril Ramaphosa, now a business tycoon who sits on Lonmin's board.

The disconnect between the South African people and the establishment was made complete at Marikana by the scenes of police opening fire on men carrying traditional clubs and spears. The impact on public opinion of the three-minute blast of gunfire was all the greater because the recipients of the bullets – who according to autopsy results leaked to The Star newspaper were mostly shot in the back – were migrant workers feeding extended families all over the country.

President Jacob Zuma has indicated he would like to stay on when the ANC holds leadership elections in December. The judicial inquiry he has commissioned into the killings at Marikana is not due to report until the end of January. But that may not save him. The three-minute blast of gunfire at Marikana on 16 August has the potential to be the event that sparks South Africa's long-talked-about "second transition": the point at which the country reappraises the compromises and deals that were struck to secure the peaceful passage from apartheid to majority rule in 1994.

But for Veronica it is much simpler and much more painful: "My father asked for 12,500R, so they killed him. Can you believe that?"

South Africa mining in numbers

3,000 miners strike against Lonmin-owned Marikana mine on 10 August. Ten people die in the following days

34 miners shot dead by police on 16 August

270 miners charged with the murder of colleagues

12,500 Monthly wage (in South African rand) that miners are campaigning for – the equivalent of £950

19 percentage fall in Lonmin share price since the violence began

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