- Associated Press - Friday, August 17, 2012

MARIKANA, South Africa — Frantic wives searched for missing loved ones, President Jacob Zuma rushed home from a regional summit and some miners vowed a fight to the death Friday as police announced a shocking casualty toll from the previous day’s shooting by officers of striking platinum miners: 34 dead and 78 wounded.

Wives of miners at the Lonmin platinum mine northwest of Johannesburg took the place of dead and wounded husbands on Friday in staging a protest. Instead of asking for higher wages as the miners had done, the women demanded to know why police had opened fire Thursday with automatic rifles, pistols and shotguns on the strikers, many of whom had been armed with spears, machetes and clubs.

“Police stop shooting our husbands and sons,” read a banner carried by the women. They kneeled before shotgun-toting police and sang a protest song, saying “What have we done?” in the Xhosa language.

Police insisted that they acted in self-defense, noting that strikers even possessed a pistol taken from a police officer they had beaten to death on Monday.

National police Chief Mangwashi Victoria Phiyega told a packed news conference that Thursday was a dark day for South Africa and that it was not a time for pointing fingers, but many people were comparing the shootings to apartheid-era state violence and political parties and labor unions demanded an investigation.

Zuma returned home from a summit in Mozambique and announced an official inquiry into the killings, which he called shocking and tragic. The president headed directly to the mine, 70 kilometers (40 miles) northwest of Johannesburg, where his office said he would visit injured miners in the hospital.

At least 10 other people were killed during the week-old strike, including two police officers battered to death by strikers and two mine security guards burned alive when strikers set their vehicle ablaze.

Makhosi Mbongane, a 32-year-old winch operator, said mine managers should have come to the striking workers rather than send police. Strikers were demanding monthly salary raises from $625 to $1,563. Mbongane vowed that he was not going back to work and would not allow anyone else to do so either.

“They can beat us, kill us and kick and trample on us with their feet, do whatever they want to do, we aren’t going to go back to work,” he told The Associated Press. “If they employ other people they won’t be able to work either. We will stay here and kill them.”

Myriad problems are facing South Africa 18 years after white racist rule ended, including growing inequality between a white minority joined by a small black elite while most blacks endure high unemployment and inadequate housing, health care and education.

The shootings “awaken us to the reality of the time bomb that has stopped ticking — it has exploded,” The Sowetan newspaper said in a front-page editorial Friday. “Africans are pitted against each other… They are fighting for a bigger slice of the mineral wealth of the country.”

The youth wing of the ruling African National Congress party argues that nationalization of the nation’s mines and farms is the only way to redress the evils of the apartheid past. Zuma’s government has played down those demands.

Lonmin PLC chairman Roger Phillimore issued a statement Friday saying the deaths were deeply regretted.

At hospitals in the area, people gathered, hoping to find missing family members among the wounded. At the scrubland scene of the killings, a woman carrying a baby on her back said she was looking for a missing miner.

“My husband left yesterday morning at 7 a.m. to come to the protest and he never came back,” said Nobantu Mkhuze.

Shares in Lonmin PLC fell as much as 8 percent Friday. Since violence broke out last weekend at the Marikana mine, shares have fallen by as much as 20 percent, wiping some 390 million pounds ($610 million) off the company’s market value. The company, the world’s third-largest platinum miner, has also been hit by Thursday’s announcement that chief executive officer Ian Farmer is hospitalized with a serious illness.

Also Friday, police and forensic experts watched by about 100 people combed the scene of the shooting, planting multicolored cones and numbered placards to mark evidence amid the dirt and bushes where the shooting took place. Police also searched the rocky outcropping where thousands of miners had gathered daily to strike.

The South Africa Police Service defended officers’ actions, saying in a statement that they were “viciously attacked by the (strikers), using a variety of weapons, including firearms. The police, in order to protect their own lives and in self-defense, were forced to engage the group with force.”

Shocked South Africans watched replay after replay of video of the shooting that erupted after police used water cannons, and then stun grenades and tear gas in an effort to disperse the strikers and get them to hand over their weapons. Some miners did leave, though others carrying weapons began war chants and marched toward the township near the mine.

Suddenly, a group of miners rushed through the underbrush and haze of tear gas at a line of police officers. Officers immediately opened fire, with miners falling to the ground. Dozens of shots were fired by police armed with automatic rifles and pistols.

By the time officers shouted “Cease fire!” dozens of miners were motionless on the ground, dead or dying.

Poor South Africans protest daily across the country for basic services such as running water, housing and better health and education. Protests often turn violent, with people charging that ANC leaders have joined the white minority that continues to enrich itself while life becomes ever harder for the black majority.

While the initial walkout and protest focused on wages, violence has been fueled by the struggles between the dominant National Union of Mineworkers and the upstart and more radical Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union.

NUM secretary-general Frans Baleni has said that some of his union members were on a hit list, including a shop steward killed Tuesday by strikers.

Faul reported from Johannesburg. Associated Press journalist Jon Gambrell contributed to this report.