Zuma rushes to scene of massacre as dead miners' widows rage

South African President ‘dismayed’ after 34 strikers killed – but pays tribute to police

Cape Town

The relatives of the 34 platinum miners killed during Thursday's South African police operation gathered outside a hospital yesterday in the hopes of obtaining news and answers.

But officials – police, politicians, employers and trade union leaders – seemed more concerned with managing the political and image fallout of the Marikana tragedy: a bloody three-minute barrage of automatic fire that shocked television viewers around the world as dozens of men armed with primitive weapons collapsed to the ground on a dusty hillside 60 miles north of Johannesburg.

President Jacob Zuma cancelled an appearance at a regional summit in Mozambique to visit Rustenburg yesterday evening. He said the country had been "saddened and dismayed by the events of the past few days". "Today is not for finger-pointing or blaming, today challenges us to restore calm and to share the pain of the affected," he added. He offered his "sincere condolences to all families who have lost loved ones" He also paid tribute to the police, who he said "are forced to intervene in difficult situations".

Last night, he said he had been briefed by police and local officials and that he would appoint a commission of inquiry into events. In a statement, he said: "It is clear there is something serious behind these happenings. This is unacceptable in a country in which everyone feels comfortable. This is a shocking thing. We do not know where it comes from and we have to address it.''

Trade unions and political parties sent condolences and demanded inquiries and arrests. But only civil society pressure groups outside the political mainstream called for demonstrations against the police's handling of the Marikana strike, or for answers from Lonmin, the London-listed owner of the mine. The African National Congress Youth League condemned the mainstream ANC's ''capitulation to capital'' but used the event chiefly to renew its demand for the nationalisation of mines.

The responses seemed a world away from the needs of the now widowed women who joined an impromptu demonstration outside Andrew Staffer Memorial Hospital in Marikana. The only information available to them seemed to be coming from hospital officials who came and went with lists of names and occasionally called in a worried relative.

The women carried placards with messages directed at the mine's owner, Lonmin, and the government. One read: "What sort of government kills its people?" Another stated: "Piega (police commissioner Riah Phiyega) you are celebrating your position by the blood of our families." Several of the women demanded that the government and Lonmin pay the funeral expenses of the dead, many of whom are believed to be from Lesotho – the country which traditionally provides rock-drillers to South African mines. "We don't have money so government should pay," said Mmatshepiso Mohlomi. She and others were unsure of the whereabouts of their husbands or relatives.

At an earlier, elaborate, damage-limitation press conference by the police, Ms Phiyega told reporters she took responsibility for giving the officers the order to open fire. ''As commissioner, I gave police the responsibility to execute the task they needed to do."

She said 259 people had been arrested and six firearms recovered. At the briefing in Rustenburg, police showed slides aimed at justifying tactics that have not been seen in South Africa since the end of Apartheid in 1994. The PowerPoint presentation resembled the kind of propaganda troops might be shown before an assault: pictures of two police officers who were hacked to death on Monday, and an aerial photograph showing naked miners engaged in a ritual with a sangoma (witchdoctor) to give them extraordinary powers. Ms Phiyega said: "The police had to use force to protect themselves from the group. The militant group stormed towards the police, firing shots and wielding dangerous weapons. Police retreated systematically and were forced to utilise maximum force. This is no time for blaming, this is no time for finger-pointing. It is a time for us to mourn."

For its part, Lonmin last night issued a statement through its chief financial officer, Simon Scott: "On behalf of the whole company I would like to express our sincere condolences to the families and friends of all those employees who have lost their lives, not only in the events of Thursday but also in the days leading up to it, and of course to the families and colleagues of the two South African Police Service officers who died trying to protect others," he said.

Conflicting versions abounded over exactly what happened in the moments before police opened fire on Thursday afternoon with live bullets. By that time, 10 people – including the two police officers – had already died in clashes between the dominant National Union of Mineworkers and the Association of Mining and Construction Union (Amcu).

Police had on Wednesday negotiated with 3,000 rock-drillers gathered on a hillside above the mine. It was not clear which union they belonged to. But they were angry Lonmin had agreed to increase the salaries of a group of rock-drillers despite the existence of a bargaining agreement with a year to run. Amcu had allegedly let it be known it would do more than the NUM to achieve a similar three-fold pay rise for anyone that joined it. Wednesday's talks – to which Lonmin did not send a representative – ended with the police demanding the miners disarm within 24 hours. Early on Wednesday, a senior police officer was reported as saying ''this is D-Day, unfortunately''.

As night fell yesterday, several hundred men had again gathered near the rocky outcrop where the battle took place on Thursday. A police helicopter was circling overhead. According to some reports, the men had earlier held a meeting and resolved to return and confront the police. But they had been kept at bay by razor wire.

Nearby, a dozen of the women from the hospital had gathered again. "The men are showing the police that they are not afraid of them and that they don't have respect for them anymore," said Mrs Mohlomi.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
The two faces revealed by the ultraviolet light
newsScholars left shaken after shining ultraviolet light on 500-year-old Welsh manuscript
Rosamund Pike played Bond girld Miranda Frost, who died in Die Another Day (PA)
Arts and Entertainment
newsHow do you get your party leader to embrace a message and then stick to it? With people like this
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: In House Counsel - Contracts

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This leading supplier of compliance software a...

Recruitment Genius: Associate System Engineer

£24000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The Associate System Engineer r...

Recruitment Genius: Executive Assistant

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: An Executive Assistant is required to join a l...

Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager - B2B, Corporate - City, London

£45000 - £50000 per annum + benefits : Ashdown Group: A highly successful, glo...

Day In a Page

General Election 2015: The masterminds behind the scenes

The masterminds behind the election

How do you get your party leader to embrace a message and then stick to it? By employing these people
Machine Gun America: The amusement park where teenagers go to shoot a huge range of automatic weapons

Machine Gun America

The amusement park where teenagers go to shoot a huge range of automatic weapons
The ethics of pet food: Why are we are so selective in how we show animals our love?

The ethics of pet food

Why are we are so selective in how we show animals our love?
How Tansy Davies turned 9/11 into her opera 'Between Worlds'

How a composer turned 9/11 into her opera 'Between Worlds'

Tansy Davies makes her operatic debut with a work about the attack on the Twin Towers. Despite the topic, she says it is a life-affirming piece
11 best bedside tables

11 best bedside tables

It could be the first thing you see in the morning, so make it work for you. We find night stands, tables and cabinets to wake up to
Italy vs England player ratings: Did Andros Townsend's goal see him beat Harry Kane and Wayne Rooney to top marks?

Italy vs England player ratings

Did Townsend's goal see him beat Kane and Rooney to top marks?
Danny Higginbotham: An underdog's tale of making the most of it

An underdog's tale of making the most of it

Danny Higginbotham on being let go by Manchester United, annoying Gordon Strachan, utilising his talents to the full at Stoke and plunging into the world of analysis
Audley Harrison's abusers forget the debt he's due, but Errol Christie will always remember what he owes the police

Steve Bunce: Inside Boxing

Audley Harrison's abusers forget the debt he's due, but Errol Christie will always remember what he owes the police
No postcode? No vote

Floating voters

How living on a houseboat meant I didn't officially 'exist'
Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin

By Reason of Insanity

Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin
Power dressing is back – but no shoulderpads!

Power dressing is back

But banish all thoughts of Eighties shoulderpads
Spanish stone-age cave paintings 'under threat' after being re-opened to the public

Spanish stone-age cave paintings in Altamira 'under threat'

Caves were re-opened to the public
'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'

Vince Cable interview

'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'
Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

Promises, promises

But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

The death of a Gaza fisherman

He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat