(Reuters) – In a loping, crouching run, striking South African miners advance towards a line of police in helmets and flak-jackets who are pointing automatic rifles at them. The police open fire.
In less than a minute, the men, some of whom police say conducted witchcraft rituals they believed would protect them from bullets, crumple and fall in a hail of gunfire that kicks up clouds of yellow dust.
Television footage starkly captures the moment of the police shootings at a dusty platinum mine northwest of Johannesburg on Thursday that killed at least 34 protesting workers and tore a gash in the soul of post-apartheid South Africa.
The sight of protesters falling dead before guns fired by government security forces strikes a jarringly painful chord in a nation ruled by Africa’s oldest liberation movement, the African National Congress.
Its proud anti-apartheid image has long been nurtured by memories of fallen martyrs and massacres committed by police and troops under white-minority rule that ended 18 years ago.
Except this time the shooting, the deadliest security operation since apartheid was abolished, was carried out by a police force under the responsibility of an ANC government.
Seeking to answer why an industrial dispute ended in what many are calling a “bloodbath”, ministers and senior police went out of their way to say officers were forced to fire to protect themselves from charging armed strikers.
“We did what we could with what we had,” Police Commissioner Riah Phiyega told a news conference on Friday, flanked by senior officers who were peppered with questions by journalists about how and why the police used their firearms as they did.
Phiyega, a former banker only months in the job and seen by many in the force as a political appointee, said the police were responding to a week of violence in which two Marikana security guards, a supervisor and two police officers were hacked to death by workers armed with spears, machetes and clubs.
“We have seen … how they chopped our members,” she said, going on to describe how the violence culminated in Thursday’s shootings near a rocky hill which the several thousand strikers had used as a stronghold during the week.
Local media have since dubbed it the “Hill of Horror”.
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