S. African Miner Protest Shows Deep Conflicts

The police shooting of strikers reveals how money and power divide the country.

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(The Root) -- When South African police attacked black platinum miners on strike last week -- shooting dead 34 and injuring 78 -- the nation was suddenly reminded how some things haven't changed since the end of apartheid two decades ago.

Headlines thundered "war" and "massacre," describing the violence that occurred when some 3,000 angry workers faced off against authorities on a dusty hill outside the Lonmin platinum mine in Marikana, armed with sticks and traditional machetes. Images of police firing into the crowd hit a little too close to home for many of the country's blacks who lived through a bygone era, when white police infamously mowed down black protesters in areas such as Sharpeville and Soweto.

This time the police weren't all white. National Police Commissioner Riah Phiyega, who is black, said officers were shot at first and only had retaliated in self-defense. She told journalists that police used tear gas, water cannons and stun grenades before resorting to deadly force. She claimed that some protesters had guns and that the crowd grew more unruly and surged forward.

Mine workers were asking for a pay raise from about $500 to about $1,500. Union negotiations had broken down between the company and the National Union of Mineworkers and a rival union, the more radical Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union. So workers launched a wildcat strike and gathered for several days outside the mine. Before Thursday's violence erupted, eight protesters and two policemen had already been killed.

However, these days inequality in South Africa is no longer entirely a black-and-white issue. It's also green and red -- green for the yawning wealth gap and red for the blood spilled in increasingly violent protests by the have-nots. That unbalance, some analysts say, is dangerous.

Adam Habib, deputy vice chancellor of the University of Johannesburg, explained that the shooting incident had many underlying causes. "This doesn't happen in abstraction from a context," he told The Root. "This is a context where poor people are angry. It has to do with the fact that our post-apartheid state has not sufficiently dealt with the marginalization of the poor."

The solution, he said, is complicated. He said the government should have intervened much sooner and held the unions and the mining company to account before the shootout happened. He also called for all parties to be open to the investigation and to show more accountability in the future.

South Africa is a nation starkly divided along economic lines. Expensive sports cars glide through Johannesburg's potholed streets as crammed Toyota minibuses sputter along beside them. Half of the population lives below the poverty line. Some newspapers warned that the conflict could snowball, and others criticized top leaders for not showing sufficient leadership.

South Africa's president, Jacob Zuma, has called for a week of mourning. The mining company has also relented on its initial stance, in which they gave striking workers a choice: Return to work or be fired. Workers said they plan to regroup. One protestor, who identified himself only as Siphiwo, told The Root that he and his colleagues would not back down.

Some residents of Wonderkop, a nearby town that lies in the shadow of the mine, said they're struggling to understand what happened. One miner, who asked to only be identified by his first name, Thabo, said he was still traumatized because four or five of his friends were shot.