Volatile demand for country’s goods means employers rarely offer full-time jobs and competition is harsh.
South African police killed 34 people in a shooting at a mine in North West province, the country’s police chief says.
Officers shot at the workers who were protesting on Thursday afternoon over pay at the Lonmin platinum mine in Marikana, some 100km northwest of Johannesburg.
The incident, which police said was an act of self defence, appears to be one of the bloodiest police operations since the end of white-minority rule in 1994 in Africa’s biggest economy.
National Police Commissioner Riah Phiyega, speaking at a news conference on Friday, also said 78 people had been injured and 259 arrested in Thursday’s violence.
“The police members had to employ force to protect themselves from the charging group,” she said.
“This is no time for blaming, this is not time for finger pointing. It is a time for us to mourn a sad and dark moment we experience as a country.”
But local newspaper headlines screamed “Bloodbath”, “Killing Field” and “Mine Slaughter”, with graphic photographs of heavily armed police officers walking casually past the bloodied corpses of men lying crumpled in the dust.
In a front page editorial, The Sowetan newspaper questioned what had changed since 1994.
“It has happened in this country before where the apartheid regime treated black people like objects,” the paper said. “It is continuing in a different guise now.”
Zweli Mnisi, the police ministry spokesman, said an investigation into the shooting has begun. Labour unions and political parties, including the ruling ANC, called for an independent inquiry.
Police investigators and forensic experts, meanwhile, combed the scene of the shooting, watched by about 100 people on Friday. South African media said that there was no more violence reported in the area overnight.
Giving their version of Thursday’s violence, police said up to 3,000 striking drill operators armed with machetes and sticks, and some with firearms, ignored orders to disperse.
The crowd had charged at the line of officers, but it remained unclear what prompted this behaviour, Mnisi, the police spokesman, said.
Witnesses said a water cannon, stun grenades and tear gas were first used to try and break up the crowd. The shooting happened after police failed to get the striking miners to hand over their weapons.
In an earlier statement, the South African Police Service said its officers were “viciously attacked by the group, using a variety of weapons, including firearms. The police, in order to protect their own lives and in self-defence, were forced to engage the group with force”.
The incident, captured by Reuters photographers, drew condemnation from South African’s main opposition party, the Democratic Alliance, social media users and evoked comparisons with apartheid-era brutality.
Jacob Zuma, South Africa’s president, cut short a trip to a regional summit in neighbouring Mozambique to address the crisis.
On Thursday he said he was “shocked and dismayed at this senseless violence” at the mine.
“We believe there is enough space in our democratic order for any dispute to be resolved through dialogue without any breaches of the law or violence,” Zuma said in a statement.
“We call upon the labour movement and business to work with government to arrest the situation before it deteriorates any further.”
The Sowetan reported on Thursday that police officers earlier said that negotiations with leaders of rival labour union Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (AMCU) had broken down, leaving no option but to disperse strikers by force.
“Today is unfortunately D-day,” Dennis Adriao, a police spokesman, was quoted as saying on Thursday.
While the initial walkout and protest focused on wages, the ensuing violence has been fuelled by the struggles between the dominant National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) and the upstart and more radical AMCU.
Disputes between the two unions escalated into violence earlier this year at another mine.
Roger Phillimore, Lonmin’s chairman, issued a statement on Friday saying the deaths were deeply regretted. But he emphasised the mine considers it “clearly a public order rather than a labor relations associated matter”.
Lonmin had announced on Thursday that striking workers would be fired if they did not appear at their shifts on Friday.
“The striking [workers] remain armed and away from work,” the company said in a statement. “This is illegal.”
The unrest at the Lonmin mine began on August 10, as about 3,000 workers walked off the job over pay in what management described as an illegal strike.
Those who tried to go to work on Saturday were attacked, management and the NUM said.
The rage became deadly on Sunday as a crowd killed two security guards by setting their car ablaze, authorities said.
Angry strikers on Monday killed two workers and overpowered police, leaving two officers dead, officials said.
Officers opened fire that day, killing three more people, police said.
Before Thursday’s shooting, the protests and ensuing violence had killed at least 10 people in Marikana, including the two police officers.
It has also drastically affected production at the mine.