South Africa mourns 44 killed in mine clashes

Updated 8:00 AM EDT, Thu August 23, 2012

Story highlights

NEW: Lonmin closes to allow miners to attend services

NEW: Some workers have resumed work following the strikes

NEW: Company officials say no incidents occurred at the mine overnight

Government officials and mine workers attend the memorial service near the site of the clashes

(CNN) —  

South Africans wept, sang somber hymns and prayed at memorial services Thursday to mourn 44 people killed during labor protests in the nation’s mining heartland.

At the main service, traditional leaders and church officials in flowing robes led the prayers near the site of the clashes at the Marikana mine, operated by Lonmin, one of the world’s largest platinum producers.

Some grief-stricken mourners fainted and had to be carried out of the ceremony by relatives and friends.

Various government officials attended the main ceremony, but police officers were not welcome, at the request of the miners.

Of the dozens killed at the Marikana mine, 34 died in a hail of gunfire from police officers, who said they shot at the machete-armed protesters in self-defense on August 16. At least 78 others suffered injuries.

What’s behind the Marikana massacre?

Lonmin was closed to allow miners, some of whom have returned to work despite the strikes, to attend the memorial services. Company officials said no incidents occurred at the mine overnight.

Strikes at the mine started two weeks ago when thousands of rock drillers demanded higher wages. Lonmin rejected the demand and called the strike illegal.

Violence intensified last week when police fired live ammunition into a crowd of protesters, killing 34 people and sparking a national outcry.

The protesters, armed with machetes and sticks, defied orders to lay down their weapons, posing a threat to police officers, according to authorities.

Ten others died in the earlier days of the protests, including two police officers who were hacked to death.

A rivalry between two unions that wield a lot of power and influence in the nation added to the tension. The unions, accused of trying to outdo each other in negotiating wages, denied instigating the clashes.

Thousands protest at scene of mine shootings

The memorial service comes as workers at two more platinum companies in the northwest echoed Lonmin workers, signaling spreading labor discontent.

About 1,000 workers gathered at nearby Bafokeng Rasimone Platinum Mine on Wednesday to voice their discontent. They returned to work a day later.

“We congratulate the workers for refusing to be misled by people with political ambitions and for returning to work” said Sydwell Dokolwana, a regional secretary for the company.

Across the street from Marikana, at a mine owned by Anglo American Platinum mine, a group of workers gave management until Friday to respond to a list of demands. The company said workers have not made any threats to go on strike.

South African President Jacob Zuma addressed the miners at the Marikana site Wednesday and said he has launched a commission of inquiry to investigate the killings.

“We want the truth,” Zuma said. “This is painful to all of us. It is not acceptable for people to die where talks can be held.”

Grievances, fears of instability spread to other South African mines

CNN’s Karen Smith contributed to this report.