In S. Africa Protest Shooting, An Echo Of The Past?

Melissa Block speaks with Lydia Polgreen, Johannesburg bureau chief for The New York Times, about the protest by workers at a South African platinum mine, which turned bloody when police began shooting on the crowd. More than 30 people were killed and more than 70 wounded.

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MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

It has become the deadliest protest in South Africa since the end of apartheid: 34 people dead and more than 78 wounded after police opened fire yesterday on striking workers at a platinum mine northwest of Johannesburg. The miners had walked off the job a week ago, demanding an increase in wages double to triple what they were making. Today, South Africa's National Police Commissioner Riah Phiyega said officers were acting in self-defense after armed miners charged their position.

(SOUNDBITE OF PRESS CONFERENCE)

MANGWASHI VICTORIA PHIYEGA: They were met by members from the police who tried to repost the advance with water cannons, teargas as well as stun grenades. Ladies and gentlemen, the attempt was unsuccessful, and the police members had to employ force to protect themselves from the charging group.

BLOCK: The commissioner went on to say this is no time for finger-pointing, and she called it a sad and dark moment for the country. Lydia Polgreen is following the story from Johannesburg for The New York Times, and she joins me now. Lydia, we just heard - the police have said that deadly force was used only as a last resort. Based on what you have heard, does that explanation stand up?

LYDIA POLGREEN: Yesterday, when I was at the mine, it was clear that this group was not sitting around, singing "Kumbaya." These were miners who were carrying machetes, spears. There were rumors that they had guns as well. And so, clearly, the police felt very much afraid when they were charged by this group of miners as they tried to disperse them.

This is going to be analyzed for a very long time. And the police have argued, showing us frame by frame of what exactly happened, that, in fact, the protesters had broken through not just one barrier, but two, and that they had failed to repel them using rubber bullets. And when they continued to rush officers, they had no choice but to open fire. Whether the South African people will accept that version of events remains to be seen.

BLOCK: What can you tell us about the deadly violence that had taken place before yesterday's shooting?

POLGREEN: Oh, before yesterday's shooting, there had been a series of incidents. There was a - the killing of workers from a rival union called the National Union of Mineworkers. There had also been an attack on police officers who had intervened to try and prevent another killing. And these two police officers were basically hacked to death, and we were shown very graphic, very bloody pictures of these police officers after they had been killed.

BLOCK: It's quite striking, Lydia, when you watch video of the shooting, when you note that many, if not most of the police officers firing on black miners are themselves black. It's a very different South African police force than we might remember.

POLGREEN: That's absolutely right. I mean, I think that people can't help but think of the scenes that they remember of white police officers in these armored vehicles firing upon, you know, often unarmed black protesters. And what we saw yesterday was a very different scene, you know, a highly integrated police force that - at least in terms of the people that were there yesterday - was more than half black policemen.

So, clearly, there's been a transformation in that sense. But in my conversations with experts on policing and security sector reform in South Africa, it's also clear that there hasn't necessarily been the kind of deep-rooted reform in the way that the police handle crowd control situations and handle protests. So sometimes, you know, pulling the trigger is the first rather than the last answer.

Now, we need to be clear that we don't know whether that's what's happened in this case, but it's been an ongoing problem for the South African police force regardless of its racial makeup.

BLOCK: Lydia Polgreen is Johannesburg bureau chief for The New York Times. Lydia, thank you for talking with us.

POLGREEN: My pleasure.

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