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South African Police Accused Of Massacring Miners


This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm David Greene.


And I'm Renee Montagne.

In South Africa, it was a scene that evoked the darkest days of the struggle against apartheid. Workers on strike at a platinum mine yesterday were gunned down by heavily armed South African police. Thirty-four lay dead in the dust when the shooting was over. Scores of more miners were wounded. Today, human rights, labor and political groups are calling the shooting a massacre. NPR's John Burnett has been following the story from Nairobi and joined us now to talk about it.

Good morning.


MONTAGNE: Let's begin by explaining exactly what did happen.

BURNETT: Well, the best document we have of what happened is a video that was shot by a TV crew there in which you see this violent confrontation between police and the mine workers. There's a crowd with spears, machetes, clubs. The police say some firearms. They're yelling war chants. They're running toward a police line. And then the formation of police just opens fire. Next thing you see is people falling to the ground in the dust, a few of them still moving, but most of them motionless. And then someone from the police yells cease fire.

The South African police ministry says the police fired in self defense. They said we had a situation where people who were armed to the teeth attacked and killed others, even police. This is their side of the confrontation. A journalist on the scene told the news agencies that the police did use water cannon, tear gas and stun grenades to try to disperse the demonstrators before they opened fire.

MONTAGNE: So tell us a little bit more about what led up to this police shooting.

BURNETT: Well, from what I've learned, Renee, the strike began about a week ago. About 3,000 of these rock drillers walked off the job at this Marikana mine, which is about 40 miles northwest of Johannesburg. They were demanding higher wages. The mine owner, Lonmin, which is the world's third largest platinum producer, said this is an illegal strike and come back to work. Things quickly got nasty.

It was on Sunday, miners killed two Lonmin security guards. The next day, Monday, striking miners killed several fellow mine workers. It's not clear why, but they may have been members of a rival mine union. And then police fired on miners on Monday, killing three. Then the miners killed two policemen, hacking them to death. So things got out of hand and they've been degenerating all week long.

MONTAGNE: You know, again, John, these are troubling images. And they remind us of confrontations between police and demonstrators, and even police and mine workers, back in the anti-apartheid struggle days. And that would be the '80s and even the early '90s, before a majority government took over. This would appear to be a reflection of people's great disappointment in the last, almost 20 years, that things haven't gotten that much better for many South Africans at the bottom.

BURNETT: I think that's right. And what's happened here at this platinum mine, I think, represents the kind of rage and frustration and desperation that some laborers are feeling, not just miners, in South Africa.

One of the big differences of this confrontation from those that we saw in the '80s and '90s when police would be firing on anti-apartheid demonstrators, was in this case at the platinum mine, you had black police officers firing on black mine workers.

South African President Jacob Zuma issued a statement saying he was shocked and dismayed by what he saw, which now may become one of the bloodiest police confrontations since the end of apartheid.

GREENE: John, thanks very much.

BURNETT: My pleasure.

MONTAGNE: NPR's John Burnett is following that story from Nairobi. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Renee Montagne, one of the best-known names in public radio, is a special correspondent and host for NPR News.
As NPR's Southwest correspondent based in Austin, Texas, John Burnett covers immigration, border affairs, Texas news and other national assignments. In 2018, 2019 and again in 2020, he won national Edward R. Murrow Awards from the Radio-Television News Directors Association for continuing coverage of the immigration beat. In 2020, Burnett along with other NPR journalists, were finalists for a duPont-Columbia Award for their coverage of the Trump Administration's Remain in Mexico program. In December 2018, Burnett was invited to participate in a workshop on Refugees, Immigration and Border Security in Western Europe, sponsored by the RIAS Berlin Commission.