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Friday, August 17, 2012 - Page updated at 11:00 p.m.
Police fire on striking South African miners
By LYDIA POLGREEN
The New York Times
MARIKANA, South Africa — South African police fired on machete-wielding workers engaged in a wildcat strike at a platinum mine in Marikana on Thursday, leaving a field strewn with bodies and a deepening fault line between the governing African National Congress (ANC) and a nation that, 18 years after the end of apartheid, is increasingly impatient with poverty, joblessness and inequality.
In a scene replayed endlessly on television that reminded some South Africans of the days of apartheid, heavily armed officers shot into a charging crowd of workers who walked off the job last Friday, demanding that their wages be tripled.
The strike has pitted the country's largest mineworkers union, which is closely allied with the governing ANC, against an upstart union demanding sharp increases in pay and faster action to improve grim living and working standards.
The strike and the government's response are emblematic of the frustration with the slow pace of transforming South Africa's largely white-owned business establishment and the growing perception that the ANC and its allies have become too cozy with big business. As a result, many people here, especially the young, have looked for more radical solutions.
"NUM has deserted us," said one of the striking workers, who gave his name as Kelebone, referring to the older union, the National Union of Mineworkers. "NUM is working with the white people and getting money. They forgot about the workers."
At least six bodies were visible after the shooting ended, and South Africa's police ministry said early Friday that more than 30 people had been killed. Ten additional people, including two police officers, already had died as a result of violence linked to the strike.
Kelebone, who works as a winch operator, said he was paid about $500 a month to do difficult, dangerous work. "We need more money," he said.
Like most workers who walked off the job last week, Kelebone, 28, is a member of the Association of Mine Workers and Construction Union, a newer and more radical union. Lonmin, the London-based company that operates the mine, shut down operations Tuesday amid the violence.
For the past three days, workers armed with machetes, sticks and wooden cudgels occupied an outcropping of rock near the mine, chanting and dancing, pledging their readiness to die if their demands were not met.
"The struggle, the struggle, it will liberate us," they sang, shuffling in formation with their machetes held aloft.
Thursday afternoon, after repeated warnings to the crowd of about 3,000 miners to disarm and disperse, police began firing tear gas and water cannons, witnesses said. In video captured by several news organizations, the police appeared to fire upon a group of workers that charged toward them.
The police in post-apartheid South Africa have been accused of using deadly, strong-arm tactics to suppress unrest before, but the action Thursday surprised many South Africans and drew quick condemnation.
Helen Zille, leader of the opposition Democratic Alliance, called the shootings a massacre. President Jacob Zuma condemned the violence but refrained from criticizing police, saying, "there is enough space in our democratic order for any dispute to be resolved through dialogue without any breaches of the law or violence."
Frans Baleni, NUM's general secretary, defended the police: "The police were patient, but these people were extremely armed with dangerous weapons," he said.
The strike tapped deep anger at the slow pace of South Africa's transformation. When Joyce Lebelo moved to the informal settlement near a platinum mine in 1998, she built only a tiny shack, thinking the new government for which she voted would soon provide her with a proper house. She is still waiting.
"When we voted we didn't think we would spend 10 years living in a shack," she said.
But bricks and mortar, never mind running water and electricity, are still a distant dream.
"The promises they made, they have not delivered," Lebelo said. "The people who got power are fat and rich. They have forgotten the people at the bottom."
A senior member of the rival union, AMCU, said that workers are angry and betrayed by the party that liberated South Africa.
"We made the ANC what it is today but they have no time for us," the union leader said, asking that his name be withheld because he feared reprisals. "Nothing has changed, only the people on top, and they just keep getting more money."
Copyright © The Seattle Times Company
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