Christian hymns sung in Zulu and Xhosa rang out from a white tent set near the site of South Africa’s bloodiest police action since apartheid, as the nation began mourning the dead Thursday.
Major platinum mines closed to allow workers to attend memorials for the 44 people killed last week in a wildcat strike at a Lonmin facility.
Lonmin and nearby Impala Platinum closed for the day as workers prepared for memorials, including the main national service at Marikana where police gunned down 34 miners a week ago after deadly clashes had already claimed 10 lives.
Police kept their distance as tensions still ran high among workers.
“We don’t want to see police today, they must stay far away,” said Nkosinathi, a Lonmin miner who declined to give his last name for fear of reprisal.
“They bring back very ugly, very painful memories, they must move away.”
Thousands of people filled the tent where widows wept on the dusty ground and music filled the marquee.
A few police vans were parked about a kilometre (half a mile) away, and no officers were seen on foot patrol, in stark contrast with the heavy security deployed here for more than a week.
The service at Lonmin will be the focal point during a day of mourning that will stretch across the country, as many of the victims were migrant workers whose bodies have already returned to their home villages.
Religious leaders are conducting the memorials, with services also expected in Johannesburg, Cape Town and Mthatha – a city in the rural Eastern Cape province home to many of the miners.
In Mthatha, families were gathering in a Methodist church to mourn the nearly 20 miners who died from that area.
The Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (AMCU), whose rival emergence has fomented violence at platinum mines since January, held its own service early Thursday at the Implats mine.
Labour disputes in South Africa’s platinum belt have turned increasingly violent this year.
Three people died at the Implats mine during a wildcat strike that ended in February. Ten were killed at Lonmin in the days after an illegal strike began on Aug. 10, prompting police to intervene and leading to the gunning down of 34 miners last week.
The violence has been blamed on union rivalries, as an aggressive AMCU seeks to gain membership from the dominant National Union of Mineworkers, one of the country’s most powerful unions and a major ally of the ruling African National Congress.
About 3,000 rock drill operators have spearheaded the strike at Lonmin, and also appear to be at the centre of disputes at nearby mines.
South African President Jacob Zuma met with the strikers on Wednesday, seeking to ease tensions and to address concerns that the government has ignored their plight.
But Mr. Zuma was not expected to attend any of the memorials Thursday, his spokesman said, as he moved to set up a judicial probe into the violence.
“The president has undertaken that before the end of the week the terms of reference and composition of the commission of enquiry will be complete,” Mac Maharaj said.
“He has set aside time to attend to that today.”
Police are also investigating the killings, while the independent police watchdog is looking into the conduct of the officers who opened fire at the crowd that was armed mainly with spears, clubs and machetes.