South African President Jacob Zuma cut short his visit to Mozambique today following the police slaughter of striking miners at Marikana near Rustenburg in North West province.
The president had been expected to brief government ministers from the Southern African Development Community regional body on progress made in implementing a global political agreement in Zimbabwe, but the nationwide horror over events at Marikana had to take priority.
TV and print media carried shocking images of police officers firing automatic weapons at densely packed strikers, bringing the highest death toll caused by security forces since apartheid days.
The South Africa Police Service justified Thursday's massacre, saying that officers had been "viciously attacked by the group, using a variety of weapons, including firearms. The police, in order to protect their own lives and in self-defence, were forced to engage the group with force."
Police Minister Nathi Mthethwa confirmed 45 deaths and a further 86 people wounded, including two police officers, two security guards and six workers killed earlier this week.
The situation had been building since last Friday when thousands of workers, mainly rock drill operators, walked out, demanding a trebling of their monthly salary from 4,000 (£306) rand to R12,500 (£957).
The strikers gathered at high ground called Wonderkop, carrying knobkerries, spears, iron bars, pangas and, according to police, firearms.
National Union of Mineworkers president Senzeni Zokwana attempted to address the men after being driven to the hilltop in a police van but was shouted down.
His reception contrasted with that given to Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union president Vusimuzi Joseph Mathunjwa who demanded that police leave the area, claiming that their presence had prevented negotiations with management.
Mathunjwa spread panic among journalists covering the strike by telling the heavily armed workers that they were "controlled by the NUM" and sparking a tactical media withdrawal.
Mathunjwa, a preacher's son and a Salvation Army trumpeter from KwaZulu Natal, claims to oppose violence and insists that his union is non-political and non-communist, in contrast to the NUM, which, with 300,000 members, is South Africa's biggest.
Lonmin conferred organisational rights on AMCU earlier this year and says that a fifth of its workforce belongs to this union.
AMCU now has office facilities and full-time shop stewards at Lonmin's Karee mine, where 8,000 miners went on strike last year, were sacked and then largely rehired in a process that witnessed a mass switch to AMCU membership.
The South African capitalist media, which is unsurprisingly hostile to the trade union movement, portrays the escalating violence as the result of a "turf war" between NUM and AMCU, implying equivalent responsibility.
But both NUM and trade union federation Cosatu point the finger at AMCU, charging that violent acts have accompanied previous attempts to gain a negotiating foothold.
"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 Cosatu general secretary Zwelinzima Vavi.
NUM general secretary Frans Baleni called for an end to "anarchy" in South Africa's platinum sector and insisted that police in North West province could not be trusted.
Baleni also blamed company inaction for the mayhem this week, demanding that Lonmin compensate the families of the murdered mineworkers and pay the wages of workers unable to clock on because of threats of violence.
"Workers must be paid what is due to them as they have always been available to go to work but the company could not provide them with transport and security," he said.
The faith-based Bench Marks Foundation published a report into the platinum industry on Tuesday, making clear that local communities derive little benefit from the mines. It said that the mining companies were "obsessed" with cutting costs, which was "usually at the expense of the environment, labour, and communities. This usually turns into protests about low wages and unsafe working conditions."
Communist Party North West provincial secretary Madoda Sambatha insisted that AMCU leaders Mathunjwa and Steve Kholekile should be arrested for co-ordinating, planning and leading "this anarchic and worker-to-worker violence."
Sambatha demanded that a presidential commission be set up to investigate developments and urged workers to "remain united in their fight against the exploitation under the capitalist system."
NUM national spokesman Lesiba Seshoka blamed the mining companies for undermining bargaining processes and structures, highlighting the situation at Impala Platinum where the company unilaterally adjusted wages for certain categories of employees leaving others out.
"This led to some elements founding a loophole to exploit, especially forces of violence," he said.
Seshoka criticised Lonmin and Impala for uneven implementation of workplace regulations, forcing NUM to give three days notice to hold a meeting while others ignore such rules without sanction.
He also noted the growing number of informal settlements near mining areas, together with single-sex hostels, which were exploited in the 1980s by Gatsha Buthelezi's tribalist movement Inkatha to attack trade union and liberation movement supporters.
While mourning is South Africa's current priority, work to prevent efforts to undermine effective trade union organisation will take precedence after funerals have taken place.
This article originally stated that Lonmin is a subsidiary of Anglo-American. This is untrue and has been corrected.
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