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

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

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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.