The wild volley of gunfire erupted for less than three minutes. When it was over, at least seven bodies – and perhaps as many as 18 – lay in pools of blood on a dusty South African hilltop. It took just a brief burst of gunfire to expose all of the worst ills of post-apartheid South Africa: a volatile cocktail of poverty, labour militancy, police brutality, industrial decline and an increasingly angry and radicalized population.
The deadly clash between police and striking workers on Thursday was the latest chapter in a saga of mounting violence in South Africa's mining sector – historically the biggest employer in the country, but now in serious decline.
The assault by enraged mineworkers, which sparked the final volley of gunfire, should have been no surprise to the police. It followed a week of bloodshed at the Marikana platinum mine, about 70 kilometres northwest of Johannesburg, owned by London-based Lonmin.
Up to 3,000 police, backed by helicopters and armoured vehicles, have been facing off against about 3,000 striking workers, many of whom were carrying machetes, iron rods and wooden sticks. So far 10 people have already been killed, including two police officers and two security guards.
At first the police used water cannons, tear gas and rubber bullets to try to disperse the workers. But when a mob of workers charged toward them on Thursday, the police resorted to live ammunition, seemingly unprepared for safer ways of defusing the conflict.
The police, wearing helmets and body armour, opened fire on the workers with automatic rifles and pistols, leaving bodies piled on the ground. South African media called it a "killing field."
There were reports that some workers may have fired shots or thrown missiles at the police, provoking the deadly retaliation, but this was unconfirmed.
Authorities have refused to give an official toll of the dead and wounded, but one South African reporter counted 18 bodies on the ground. South African President Jacob Zuma said he was "shocked and dismayed" at the "senseless violence."
South Africa's mining sector, which includes the world's biggest platinum reserves and one of the world's leading gold industries, has been plagued by violence for years. At least three people were killed in January during clashes at a major platinum mine, run by Impala Platinum.
The immediate cause of the latest violence at the Marikana mine was the growing feud between two unions: the traditionally powerful National Union of Mineworkers (NUM), with its links to the political establishment, and its militant new rival, the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (AMCU), which has fewer members but is faster growing.
Leaders of NUM have accused its rival of poaching members and deliberately instigating violence, while AMCU has alleged that the older union is colluding with management.
"If need be, we're prepared to die here," AMCU president Joseph Mathunjwa told his members on a loudspeaker as the police prepared to disperse them on Thursday.
The struggle between the two unions is a mirror of a deeper political rift between the ruling African National Congress and radical groups such as its youth wing, which is demanding the nationalization of the mining industry and other key sectors of the economy.
Persistent poverty and unemployment are major factors in the growing militancy of many South Africans. The jobless rate is officially about 25 per cent, but unofficially it is more than 50 per cent for young South Africans. Poverty and poor housing have stoked demands for higher wages and decent public services.
The upstart union, AMCU, launched a strike against Lonmin last week, demanding a sharp pay increase to give workers a monthly wage of about $1,500. The company called it an illegal strike.
The leading national union federation, the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU), which is affiliated with South Africa's ruling party, condemned the emergence of radical new unions at the Marikana mine and elsewhere in the country. The threat is "the most serious challenge to workers' unity and strength for many years," the federation said.
The situation is turning into "a co-ordinated political strategy to use intimidation and violence, manipulated by disgruntled former union leaders, in a concerted drive to create breakaway 'unions' and weaken the trade union movement," COSATU said in a statement on Thursday.
But while the militant new groups are dividing and weakening the political establishment, the violence is also inflicting severe damage on South Africa's economic growth and its global reputation.
Lonmin, the world's third-biggest platinum producer, has suspended all of its production in South Africa, representing about 12 per cent of global output of the precious metal. Its shares on the London Stock Exchange have dropped sharply over the past week and it has lost about 15,000 ounces of planned platinum production since the violence began.