President Jacob Zuma rushed home from a regional summit Friday and announced an official inquiry into a police shooting of striking miners that left 34 dead and 78 wounded, an incident that police claimed was self-defense despite video recordings suggesting the protesters were not attacking them but running from clouds of tear gas.
Wives of miners at the Lonmin platinum mine northwest of Johannesburg searched for loved ones missing from Thursday's shooting and staged a protest, demanding to know why officers fired automatic rifles, pistols and shotguns at the strikers, many of whom had been armed with spears, machetes and clubs.
"Police stop shooting our husbands and sons," read a banner carried by the women on Friday. They kneeled before shotgun-toting police and sang a protest song, saying "What have we done?" in the Xhosa language.
At least 10 other people have been killed during the week-old strike, including two police officers battered to death by strikers and two mine security guards burned alive when strikers set their vehicle ablaze. Tensions remained high Friday among strikers, who are demanding monthly salary raises from $625 to $1,563.
"They can beat us, kill us and kick and trample on us with their feet, do whatever they want to do, we aren't going to go back to work," winch operator Makhosi Mbongane told The Associated Press. "If they employ other people they won't be able to work either. We will stay here and kill them."
South Africa faces myriad problems 18 years after white racist rule ended, including growing inequality between a white minority joined by a small black elite while most blacks endure high unemployment and inadequate housing, health care and education.
The shootings "awaken us to the reality of the time bomb that has stopped ticking — it has exploded," The Sowetan newspaper said in a front-page editorial Friday. "Africans are pitted against each other... They are fighting for a bigger slice of the mineral wealth of the country."
The shootings appalled the country, recalling images of white police firing at anti-apartheid protesters in the 1960s and 1970s, though in this case it was mostly black police firing at black mine workers.
Police said at a news conference that the shootings were in self-defense, noting that strikers possessed a pistol taken from one of the slain officers. But video footage indicates that police shot the miners moments after firing tear gas at the hill the strikers were occupying, causing them to flee.
National police Chief Mangwashi Victoria Phiyega said at news conference that Thursday was a dark day for South Africa and that it was no time for pointing fingers, even as people compared the shootings to apartheid-era state violence and political parties and labor unions demanded an investigation.
Zuma returned home from a summit in Mozambique and announced an official inquiry into the killings, which he called shocking and tragic. The president headed directly to the mine, 70 kilometers (40 miles) northwest of Johannesburg, where his office said he would visit injured miners in the hospital.
Lonmin PLC chairman Roger Phillimore issued a statement Friday saying the deaths were deeply regretted.
Research released by the Bench Marks Foundation, a non-governmental organization monitoring the practices of multinational mining corporations, found that Lonmin had a bad track record with high levels of fatalities and keeping workers in "very poor living conditions." According to the report released Tuesday, workers often live in deteriorating shacks without electricity. Some children suffer from chronic illnesses due to sewage spills caused by broken drainage.
The mining company said earlier that it would withhold comment on the report until the conflict cooled down.
Shares in Lonmin PLC fell as much as 8 percent Friday. Since violence broke out last weekend at the Marikana mine, shares have fallen by as much as 20 percent, wiping some 390 million pounds ($610 million) off the company's market value. The company, the world's third-largest platinum miner, has also been hit by Thursday's announcement that Chief Executive Ian Farmer is hospitalized with a serious illness.
On Friday, police investigators and forensic experts combed the scene of the shooting, planting multicolored cones and numbered placards to mark evidence amid the dirt and bushes where the shooting took place. Police also searched the rocky outcropping where thousands of miners had gathered daily to strike.
The South Africa Police Service defended officers' actions, saying in a statement that they were "viciously attacked by the (strikers), using a variety of weapons, including firearms. The police, in order to protect their own lives and in self-defense, were forced to engage the group with force."
People gathered at hospitals in the area, hoping to find missing family members among the wounded. At the scrubland scene of the killings, a woman carrying a baby on her back said she was looking for a missing miner.
"My husband left yesterday morning at 7 a.m. to come to the protest and he never came back," said Nobantu Mkhuze.
While the initial walkout and protest focused on wages, violence has been fueled by the struggles between the dominant National Union of Mineworkers and the upstart and more radical Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union.
NUM secretary-general Frans Baleni has said that some of his union members were on a hit list, including a shop steward killed Tuesday by strikers.
Poor South Africans protest daily across the country for basic services like running water, housing and better health and education. Protests often turn violent, with people charging that leaders of the ruling African National Congress party have joined the white minority that continues to enrich itself while life becomes ever harder for the black majority.
The ANC's youth wing argues that nationalization of the nation's mines and farms is the only way to redress the evils of the apartheid past. Zuma's government has played down those demands.