What were we supposed to do, police ask

Johannesburg - Police at Lonmin's mine in Marikana in the North West did their best in a volatile situation, Police Minister Nathi Mthethwa's office said in a statement on Thursday.

"The minister [Mthetwa] is now considering requesting the president to institute a full inquiry into this whole situation, not just around what happened today but holistically at this situation," said spokesperson Zweli Mnisi.

"Now what should police do in such situations when clearly what they are faced with are armed and hardcore criminals who murder police?"

A shoot-out between police and strikers at the mine left at least 18 people dead or wounded on Thursday.

Police sought to disperse the armed workers who had gathered on a hill, in the area that had already seen 10 deaths in violent protests the past week.

After a call for the miners to disarm themselves, the group - singing and hitting their spears against pangas - starting moving down the hill to a nearby informal settlement.

Mnisi said police initially tried to peacefully disperse the crowd, to the point of even using water cannons and teargas, but this did not help.

Such efforts were countered with the murder of police officers, he said.

The workers started running in different directions, some heading for the open veld and others toward the informal settlement.

A Sapa reporter on the scene said gunshots could be heard from the police, which lasted for three minutes.

Police on the scene said workers shot at them first before they opened fire.

"We had a situation where people who were armed to the teeth, attacked and killed others even police officers and, for the record, one of the firearms used was that of our deceased police officer."

The behaviour of those who were involved in such criminal activity was condemned, with it disguised under the banner of a right to illegally protest, accompanied by violence.

Chanting could be heard from an informal settlement near the mine on Thursday evening.

It was not clear if the group, who were singing liberation songs, were armed, but police were keeping watch.


Mnisi confirmed to AFP that there was "loss of lives", but added authorities were still determining the extent of the casualties.

"Investigations are underway but yes, there were loss of lives," he said in an SMS.

Health officicals were also tight-lipped on a possible death toll.

Provincial health spokesperson Tebogo Lekgethwane said he was reviewing a report on the casualties and would comment later.

Netcare911 spokesperson Jeffrey Wicks confirmed that their paramedics were at the scene, but declined to comment further, citing patient confidentiality as well as an agreement with the SA Police Service.

"It also runs in conjunction with our agreement with the SA Police Service that we do not comment on acts of crime," Wicks said.

Mnisi called for restraint and that if demands needed to be raised with whoever, that it be done within the framework and respect for the Constitution.

The ministry offered their condolences to the families of the deceased and a speedy recovery to the injured.

"What happened today at Lonmin is something that was unfortunate and should not have happened in post democracy South Africa because to protest is a legal and constitutional right of any citizen."

However, such rights did not imply people should be barbaric, intimidatory and hold illegal gatherings, said Mnisi.

National police commissioner Riah Phiyega was travelling to the scene of the incident.

Meanwhile, Lonmin are treating developments at the mine with the utmost seriousness, the company's chairperson said in a statement.

"The South African Police Service have been in charge of public order and safety on the ground since the violence between competing labour factions erupted over the weekend," said chairperson Roger Phillimore.

"It goes without saying that we deeply regret the further loss of life in what is clearly a public order rather than labour relations associated matter."

Senseless violence

President Jacob Zuma was alarmed and deeply saddened at the way the dispute had degenerated to lead to the tragic loss of so many lives, the presidency said in a statement.

"We are shocked and dismayed at this senseless violence. 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.

"We call upon the labour movement and business to work with government to arrest the situation before it deteriorates any further."

Zuma said he had instructed law enforcement agencies to do everything possible to bring the situation under control and to bring the perpetrators of violence to book.

"We extend our deepest condolences to the families of all who have lost their lives since the beginning of this violent action,'' Zuma said.

Political parties echoed the president's sentiments, calling for for an urgent investigation into the shootings at the Lonmin mine in Marikana in the North West on Thursday.

African National Congress spokesperson Jackson Mthembu said it needed to be determined who had caused the confrontation between police and striking miners.

Mthembu said the ANC was shocked about what happened.

"All of us feel very saddened by the violence we have seen on television," he said.

"We are requesting that our government hold an inquiry on what happened today so that all of us South Africans can come to a conclusion on who is responsible."

A shoot-out between police and strikers at the mine left at least 18 people dead or wounded on Thursday.

Mthembu said: "These illegal strikers have been violent since day one."

"However, we are not here to blame any party in this confrontation because we don't have any information."

The ANC agreed that workers should fight for their rights but not at the expense of people's lives.

"We deplore the killing and murders of police and miners."

Mthembu said the mine's management and the unions, which operated on the mine, had to resolve the matter as soon as possible.

"We are appealing to both sides... so that we don't have a repeat of what happened today. These issues cannot be resolved by the police," he said.

Brewing tensions

The Inkatha Freedom Party said the shooting highlighted the brewing tensions within South African society and should not be underestimated.

"Its horror should not only shock us but bring to the fore how too often conflicts in this country are dealt with through violence," IFP MP Mario Oriani-Ambrosini said in a statement.

"Unless there is a fundamental change of culture at the highest level of government things will worsen."

He said leaders should no longer tolerate anyone who threatened violence because eventually tolerance of such behaviour materialised tragedies like the one at Lonmin.

"We call on the president to order a for full, expedited and independent investigation of whether police action was justified, proportional and necessary under the circumstances."

The Democratic Alliance said it was shocked and appalled by what had happened at the mine.

"We call on union leaders, the police and everyone else involved to immediately work towards a de-escalation of the conflict," the party said in a statement.

"All action must be taken to avoid further bloodshed."

The DA said an urgent independent investigation was required to determine what happened and who was responsible.

"The families of everyone involved, and indeed the nation, deserve to know how and why this bloodshed occurred," it said.

Cosatu claimed that the violence was being orchestrated.

"Broadly we believe there is an orchestration, a planned violence, because the violence that people are seeing today has been going on since January," said general secretary Zwelinzima Vavi.

"Scores of people have been killed and systematically targeted. Someone is behind it. We can't put our finger on it, but someone is orchestrating that violence."

Vavi said Cosatu was extremely concerned about the loss of so many lives.

The trade union federation hoped the matter would be resolved through the intervention of the leadership of the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) and the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (AMCU).

"We are aware NUM has been trying to convince workers to stop violence and intimidation," he said.

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