(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.
Many residents still didn't know days later where their friends and relatives were — dead, in the hospital or among the more than 250 people arrested and facing charges ranging from destruction of property to murder. Daniel Modisenyane, 54, said he was "shocked" by the violence. He also said he believes police misconstrued miners' rudimentary weapons as more of a threat than they were.
"Culturally speaking, some of us, you have various language groups and you have various ethnic groups, other cultures, they hold their knobkerrie, their [stick], whatever, like what is happening in [Afghanistan]," he told The Root. "In [Afghanistan], people are carrying long guns, you know, that is cultural. When something comes, well, you cannot be empty-handed, as you know. Not that I condone what has happened."
"[South Africa] needs a militant union," Malema tweeted. "Not one that holds shares in mines and eats buffets with bosses." The intensity of this strike recalls the last major large-scale action by miners in South Africa, which happened in 1987 when National Union of Mineworkers founder Cyril Ramaphosa led more than 300,000 black workers in a protest of poor working conditions and low pay. In the violence that ensued, some 50,000 workers were fired, 11 were killed and 400 were jailed.
Today Ramaphosa sits on the Lonmin board and is part of the country's super rich. For example, he recently bid nearly $2.3 million for a cow at a glitzy auction of South African mining bosses and glitterati. Black miners, however, still persist on low wages.
Even in 1987, white miners earned more in adjusted income relative to their black counterparts today. Back then they earned at least $750 a month. In 2012 that would be worth about $1,500. That's almost exactly what the Lonmin strikers were asking to be paid. It's also just enough to buy 1 ounce of platinum at today's market price of about $1,500.
But for some workers, like Siphiwo, the crisis is no longer just about money. He said he will not return to work and will look for another job if he loses this one. To do otherwise, he said, "means that my brothers died for nothing."
Anita Powell is a Johannesburg-based journalist who has covered Africa for five years and Iraq and Afghanistan previously. Follow her on Twitter.