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Lonmin massacre evokes memories of apartheid brutality

South Africans believed police massacres were for the history books and museums, but around Soweto’s Hector Pieterson Memorial the killing of 34 miners stirred dark memories and new worries.

In Soweto’s 1976 uprising, honoured at this memorial, white apartheid police gunned down black students demanding a better education in a protest that left 23 dead the first day, and sparked a national uprising.

On Thursday at Lonmin’s Marikana platinum mine, 34 workers were shot dead in a clash with police as they demanded better wages in a wildcat strike.

“I honestly thought that we were over that time. There was supposed to be a change of mindset among the country’s security officials,” said Thozamile Ngesi, a visitor at the Soweto memorial.

“I have no doubt that the police wouldn’t have dared shoot at a group of rich white workers,” the unemployed 27-year-old said.

Mineworkers in South Africa are among the poorest of the working class, blighted by abysmal living conditions and poor pay.

The deadly shootout at the bottom of a dusty hill outside a mine run by Lonmin, the world’s third-largest platinum producer, came after a week-long strike over pay near the northwest mining town of Rustenburg.

The workers, mostly migrants from rural villages across South Africa and neighbouring countries were demanding a tripling of their wages from the current 4,000 rand ($486, 400 euros) a month.

Their demands had fallen on deaf ears and they resisted calls by union leaders to return to work, their determination to win a better life getting stronger with each day passing.

“Most of us expected freedom to deliver us from social injustices and poverty. But what we see is more suffering by the poor and the capitalists keep getting richer,” Ngesi added.

This area of Soweto is now an international tourist attraction, filled with middle-class homes along neatly paved roads with new red buses whisking commuters into the city.

Many areas, especially in rural South Africa, are not so lucky.

South Africa has about 80 percent of the world’s platinum reserves, but the industry has been criticised for chasing profits at the expense of its workers.

Many miners live in squalid conditions in shantytowns, their lives little changed in the 18 years since apartheid yielded to all-race democracy.

“It was a matter of time before something like this happened. Police in this country are violent. They shoot people, they don’t protect,” said Ananias Makgaretsa, who lives near the Hector Pieterson Memorial, named after the first victim of the Soweto protests.

“I guess we are now going to see memorials of post-apartheid police massacres. The blood of poor black people continues to flow,” said Makgaretsa.

The Lonmin violence was the deadliest police action in South Africa since 1985, when more than 20 blacks were shot dead by apartheid police in Cape Town.

This time the gunfire came from a mostly black police force.

“What we saw on television two days ago was like a bad dream. At first I thought they were playing images from the 70s and 80s. I later learnt that it was happening for real,” said Dag Ekstrom, a tourist from Sweden who is on his first visit to South Africa.

“I was shocked by the brutality displayed by police in full view of the cameras. I thought South Africa had moved away from that era,” he added.