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Policemen look on as women carrying placards chant slogans in protest against the killing of miners by South African police on Thursday, outside a South African mine in Rustenburg, 100 km northwest of Johannesburg, August 17, 2012.SIPHIWE SIBEKO/Reuters

One of the bloodiest police shootings since the days of apartheid has killed 34 miners and injured 78 at a South African platinum mine, leaving the nation in crisis and searching its soul over the rising levels of violent protest and police brutality.

South African President Jacob Zuma cut short a foreign tour, abandoning a regional summit in Mozambique to rush to the mine site. Politicians condemned the shooting, while the South African media called it a massacre and analysts accused the police of an excessive response to the striking mineworkers.

Mr. Zuma later announced that he will set up a commission of inquiry into the shootings at the Lonmin mine near Rustenburg. He said the entire country was "saddened and dismayed" by the "shocking" deaths. "The inquiry will enable us to get to the real cause of the incident," he said.

The police opened fire with automatic rifles and pistols on Thursday when confronted by an advancing mob of mineworkers. Early reports suggested that as many as 18 people were killed, but on Friday the police announced that 34 were killed, 78 injured and 259 were arrested.

Senior police officials called a press conference on Friday to defend their handling of the clash, saying that some of the strikers were carrying guns. But only one police officer was injured and he was quickly released from hospital, showing the disproportionate scale of the police response.

Video of the shooting showed the police firing merciless volleys into the crowd of advancing workers, even after bodies began to tumble, until a senior officer repeatedly shouted "cease fire, cease fire."

Analysis of the video by a South African television channel suggested that the mineworkers may have been fleeing from a tear-gas volley from a different direction, rather than attacking the police, when they were gunned down by the officers.

Some analysts said the police appeared to be panicking because they were outnumbered and under-equipped – an indication of poor preparation for a predictable confrontation that followed days of earlier violence in which 10 people died, including two police officers.

An independent police investigation board has dispatched a team of researchers who have been working around the clock on the site, gathering ballistic and forensic evidence to determine whether the police conduct was justified.

The wives and mothers of

mineworkers held a protest at the site on Friday, holding a sign that read: "Police stop shooting our husbands and sons."

Police leaders deflected the criticism, saying the police had tried to disperse the miners peacefully, but eventually had to use force to protect themselves. "This is no time for blaming, this is no time for finger-pointing. It is a time for us to mourn," said national police chief Riah Phiyega.

But many South African commentators were quick to compare the killings to the brutal tactics of the apartheid-era police. A newspaper in Soweto, home of the most famous protests against apartheid, published a front-page editorial saying that the basic attitudes of apartheid – that the lives of Africans are expendable – were "continuing in a different guise now."

The South African Institute of Race Relations said the police shot randomly into the crowd, even after workers began dying or fleeing. "This is reminiscent of the Sharpeville massacre in 1960," the institute said, referring to the notorious shooting in which 69 black protesters were killed by apartheid police.

Although the police had tried to use water cannons and tear gas to disperse the striking workers, they appeared to be lacking the proper equipment to control the crowd, the institute said.

"Even if the police were provoked or shot at during yesterday's incident, or were angry at the killing of two police officers in the days before, no disciplined and properly trained policeman would shoot into a crowd."

Police brutality has been a growing issue in South Africa for years, but it flared into headlines last year when police shot dead an unarmed protester in the town of Ficksburg.

While the police behaviour is one of the biggest issues, there is also growing concern over the violence of striking workers – and the rising use of violence in many labour disputes and political protests across South Africa, which often explode into bloody clashes.

"An increasing number of South Africans have begun to turn to violence too easily, whether they are in political formations, unions, the public service or merely citizens," said a statement today by Idasa, an African democracy institute based in Pretoria.

The violence, in turn, is a symptom of the growing anger of many South Africans in a country of persistently high unemployment and rising inequality, where wealth still seems to be reserved for a narrow elite.

A investigation by the Bench Marks Foundation, a coalition of religious groups that monitors corporate behaviour, concluded that the Lonmin employees were living in "appalling" conditions in rundown shacks, often without electricity. They are suffering from polluted water, unguarded railway crossings, asbestos-filled school rooms and an unacceptable level of fatal mining accidents, the report said.

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