It has been described as the most violent police operation in post apartheid South Africa.
Thirty-four people were shot dead and 78 others injured on August 16, when police opened fire on striking miners outside the Lonmin mine in the country’s north west province.
While police say the incident was an act of self-defence against a mob wielding clubs, machetes and handguns, questions are being asked about why police resorted to automatic rifles and live ammunition to disperse the crowd.
Many South Africans are outraged by the incident, and see it as part of a larger story of growing frustration at rising income and social inequality, poor service delivery and a state determined to squash organised dissent.
Jacob Zuma. South Africa’s president, has called for a commission of inquiry into the shootings, but many feel the damage might have already been done.
Al Jazeera spoke to South Africans from different walks of life to get their perspectives.
Zola Valashiya, 23, law student, University of the Free State
“South Africa has a new massacre to add to its list. The now-dubbed ‘Marikana Massacre’ will probably the most abhorred, simply because it occurred in ‘post-apartheid-new democracy-constitutional’ South Africa.
|Zola Valashiya: There has been ‘enough experience with “violent crowd” scenarios for protocols to be developed’
“The incident resembled the conduct of an oppressive unforgiving police force we know all too well. We, as South Africans, pledged to never let such atrocities occur under the watchful eye of the constitution.
“Now that ghost has come back to haunt us and all the fears we locked in the back of our minds and in the basements of our hearts returned with it. The use of deadly force is justifiable in certain circumstances within certain limits and the constitution supports this ‘justifiable harm’.
“However that’s not really what we should be discussing, as South African society, rather how did we let the brewing tensions behind the rival mineworkers’ and their unions at Lonmin Mines get to the point where the police have to consider using deadly force?
“This could have, and should have, been avoided – as South Africa has had enough experience with ‘violent crowd’ scenarios for protocols and procedures to have been developed in light of preserving life and in upholding the rights enshrined in our sacred constitution, as far as possible, before taking all those rights away, especially the right to life.”
|Aasia Fredericks, 30, communications worker
“When faced with tragedy, I think we’d like to believe there’s only one party to blame for what has happened at the mine this week.
|Aasia Fredericks believes the country must bridge socioeconomic gaps
“However, [when] self-serving unions and corporates [are] coupled with workers who have had to endure terrible living and working conditions, you have a problem.
“Add to that an unskilled police force and we have created a perfect storm. As South Africans, we tend to live in an echo chamber and many live oblivious to this tragedy. This will be seen as a black problem; many people can’t or won’t empathise.
“Unless we start focusing on bridging the gap between the socioeconomic classes, the disenfranchised will rise up and bring South Africa to a standstill. I believe that this is only the beginning of our own ‘African Spring’.
“The ‘people shall govern’ will be more than just a party slogan in the next few years.”
|Tshonwe Idah Thethiwe, 33, and Nyefolo Linah, 27, domestic workers
“The cops are wrong because they used guns. The owner of the mine can resolve this now. Even Zuma needs to get involved. I feel so bad, because I do not think people should be killed in that fashion.
|Thethiwe (right) and Linah blame the police: ‘They have no business killing people’
“I blame the cops, because they killed the people. Sometimes, they should be using rubber bullets or tear gas, but to use live fire is not good.
“I think people in South Africa are feeling bad. What happened was not right. You know those people they killed, were people of South Africa and the police were people of South Africa – so I feel bad.
“I think the police need to do their job. They have no business killing people. The people in the mine have a dangerous job. Maybe they were right to strike.
“You see, when you are inside the mine, everything is dangerous, that’s why the people want the extra money, because they know how it works. They have no choice but to ask for better wage.”
|Seham Areff, 21, law student, University of KwaZulu-Natal
“To paraphrase [columnist] Khaya Dlanga – 30 dead is two more bodies than the Bisho massacre of 1992; this officially qualifies as a massacre.
“This was also my first reaction to the tragic events that happened at the Marikana mine on Thursday.
|Seham Areff says South Africans should not ask who to blame, but to question ‘transformation and unionism’
“In footage resembling how the Apartheid riot police dispersed crowds of protesting schoolchildren in 1976, it was too easy for me – and fellow South Africans – to blame the police for this incident and to question how far my country has really come in its democratic and constitutional development, specifically in relation to worker’s rights.
“After reading more into the shooting, I feel that only the latter is justified, not the former. The facts are this: the strike was illegal; the strikers were not peaceful protesters but heavily armed with machetes and weapons; negotiations were protracted and had turned acrimonious largely due to the underhanded strategic tactics of the company Lonmin and “rival” trade union AMCU [Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union]; and, probably more importantly, neither the police nor AMCU nor the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) could control the crowd.
“The result was a powder keg. In my opinion, all actors are to blame – Lonmin for paying miners slave wages, AMCU for trying to be ‘more radical’ than NUM at the expense of 30+ lives, NUM for allowing an illegal strike, the police for being so trigger-happy, and the miners for exceeding the ambit of their right to strike. The question for me is not one of blame, rather it relates to whether we have actually seen a true transformation in miner’s rights since Apartheid – and whether, in the supposed pursuit of those rights, trade unions in South Africa have unfettered power to act – and to fail to act – in ways that can lead to greater suffering and loss.
“Personally, I feel it is about time we stopped answering the easy question of who to blame and seriously engage with the difficult issues of transformation and unionism which hang over every strike.”
|Yashodhan Nair, 18, medical student, University of Cape Town
“For young South Africans, the clash of conflict has only ever filtered through the media.
|Yashodhan Nair says ‘both sides overstepped the mark’
“We honour the Arab Spring as a period of progress and flash indignant when protesters are met with brutality and violence. Yet life in South Africa hardly misses a beat. The odd protest and dissatisfaction with service delivery does little to drive us away from our complacency. For those, like me, who have only heard stories of the violence of the transition to democracy as slightly more than urban folklore, the Lonmin violence has come as a shock. As a stable nation whose problems seemed to be debated out and resolved with policy, the 34 deaths in clashes with police betrayed our wilful delusion.
“With echoes of 16 June 1976, harsh condemnation of police violence has turned to demonising. With terms like ‘Apartheid style tactics’ thrown about, we have blinded ourselves to the deep-rooted underlying problem: when protesters are armed and belligerent, the notion of peaceful protest is well and truly dead. This tragedy, where both sides overstepped the mark, should remind us to evaluate a societal culture of violent protest that harms all involved. It is time to critically assess the social relics of our post-transition state in the interest of social cohesion.”
|Mandla Jackson Kgwetle, 47, driver
|Mandla Kgwetle says the miners should be given
“What happened should not have happened. Everything can be solved without using arms. It is sad, very sad. it must not happen again.
“I think it was like a misunderstanding between police and the miners. I think the police must be blamed, because they are trained to handle all such situations, so they are supposed to be able to handle guns without having to kill.
“The next step, I think, is hold those responsible for what they did. I think management must sit down with the miners and resolve their problems.
“They should be given whatever they want. I think miners should have basic wages. It is shocking. People go underground and still earn like a R1500 ($150) [a month]. It is peanuts compared with what they are doing there and what the bosses get.”
Follow Azad Essa on Twitter: @azadessa