JOHANNESBURG, South Africa (Reuters) - In a loping, crouching run, striking South African miners advance towards a line of police in helmets and flak-jackets who are pointing automatic rifles at them. The police open fire.
In less than a minute, the men, some of whom police say conducted witchcraft rituals they believed would protect them from bullets, crumple and fall in a hail of gunfire that kicks up clouds of yellow dust.
Television footage starkly captures the moment of the police shootings at a dusty platinum mine northwest of Johannesburg on Thursday that killed at least 34 protesting workers and tore a gash in the soul of post-apartheid South Africa.
The sight of protesters falling dead before guns fired by government security forces strikes a jarringly painful chord in a nation ruled by Africa’s oldest liberation movement, the African National Congress.
Its proud anti-apartheid image has long been nurtured by memories of fallen martyrs and massacres committed by police and troops under white-minority rule that ended 18 years ago.
Except this time the shooting, the deadliest security operation since apartheid was abolished, was carried out by a police force under the responsibility of an ANC government.
Seeking to answer why an industrial dispute ended in what many are calling a “bloodbath”, ministers and senior police went out of their way to say officers were forced to fire to protect themselves from charging armed strikers.
“We did what we could with what we had,” Police Commissioner Riah Phiyega told a news conference on Friday, flanked by senior officers who were peppered with questions by journalists about how and why the police used their firearms as they did.
Phiyega, a former banker only months in the job and seen by many in the force as a political appointee, said the police were responding to a week of violence in which two Marikana security guards, a supervisor and two police officers were hacked to death by workers armed with spears, machetes and clubs.
“We have seen ... how they chopped our members,” she said, going on to describe how the violence culminated in Thursday’s shootings near a rocky hill which the several thousand strikers had used as a stronghold during the week.
Local media have since dubbed it the “Hill of Horror”.
Police said they had evidence some of the protesters had used witchcraft, known as “muti” and involving them being anointed with special potions, to give themselves courage in the heat of battle.
“They told journalists this would protect them from police and make them immune to bullets,” police spokesman Dennis Adriao told Reuters, saying police helicopters had taken photos of a “sangoma”, or witch doctor, anointing some of the workers.
Phiyega, Police Minister Nathi Mthethwa and other police officials all justified the use of deadly force by saying that the protesters’ array of weapons included firearms.
Six firearms were recovered after the shooting, the commissioner said, including one which had apparently belonged to one of the slain officers. Other weapons retrieved included knives, spears, axes, metals poles and machetes.
Describing the buildup to the shooting, Phiyega said the police took a decision on Thursday to move against the striking miners after they ignored three days of negotiations requesting them to lay down their arms and disperse.
Weeping at a news conference on Friday, Joseph Mathunjwa, president of the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (AMCU) that backed the strikers at the Lonmin’s Marikana mine, said he had pleaded with them before the shooting to move away peacefully.
He said he told them: “Leave this place, they are going to kill you”.
In a tactical move, hundreds of police backed by helicopters, armoured vehicles and mounted units, began laying down strings of barbed wire near the strikers’ hilltop stronghold, with the aim of containing them to be able to move in and disarm them more easily, she said.
As this wire-laying operation was underway, Phiyega said a “group of protesters armed with dangerous weapons and firearms” broke away and charged the police lines, obliging the officers to fire to protect themselves.
Television footage shows the group of men slipping between low scrub and police vehicles, heading straight for the line of uniformed police. They are not visibly brandishing weapons, but appear to half crouch 30-40 metres away.
Lazarus Letsoele, an AMCU member, described how the security forces tried to start dispersing the protesters.
“They tried to move the crowd with security wire to force them down the hill. A group went forward. They were shot dead by police who were waiting,” he told Reuters.
“Some of us had arms, but they were for protection, not to attack the police,” Letsoele added.
Reuters photographer Siphiwe Sibeko said he saw at least one of the protesters shoot a pistol before the police, who included black and white officers, opened fire.
“A guy from the protesters fired a gunshot towards us, a pistol,” Sibeko said.
“They were singing and knocking their sticks and spears together,” Reuters cameraman John “Dinky” Mkhize said.
In the television footage of the deadly confrontation, no specific order to open fire can be heard in the police ranks.
“I didn’t hear any order to fire. There was a lot of confusion. Police were shouting to us to move away,” Sibeko said. Mkhize, who was standing behind the police line, also said he heard no such order before the sustained police volley.
Phiyega and her senior officers said police only used live ammunition after water cannon, tear gas, stun grenades and rubber bullets failed to have any effect.
Reuters’ Mkhize said he heard the crack of a stun grenade and could smell tear gas as the group of protesters came running out through the gap by the armoured police vans which are known locally as “nyalas”, named after a common species of antelope.
“Whether they were running away or charging it was difficult to say. The fact is they ran into the line of police. Why did they run that way?” Mkhize said.
From the television footage, they appeared to run directly into a hail of live bullets, which kicked up clouds of dust. When it cleared, bodies were strewn on the ground, some moving feebly.
One white police officer in a beret and wearing dark sunglasses can be heard shouting “cease fire, cease fire”, moving a clenched fist up and down to reinforce this order. Similar shouts come from other officers.
“After it had calmed down, and there were bodies lying all about and the police had disarmed them, we heard other continuous gunshots from the other side of the rock,” Sibeko said. Police confirmed more than one bout of shooting.
Besides the 34 killed, Commissioner Phiyega said 78 people were injured and 259 arrested.
She stood by the decision to move in.
“As the National Commissioner, I gave the responsibility to the police to do what they needed to do,” she said.