MARIKANA, South Africa — South Africa's defense minister apologized Tuesday to angry miners who held up plastic packets of bullet casings, the first government official to beg forgiveness for the police shootings that killed 34 striking miners, wounded another 78 and shocked the nation. It was the most deadly display of state violence since apartheid ended in 1994.
Defense Minister Nosiviwe Noluthando Mapisa-Nqakula's apology came at the site of the killings where hundreds of mourners walked barefoot earlier in a ceremony to bless the site.
The minister spoke after one furious miner demanded to know why President Jacob Zuma has not come to address them, and threatened not to vote for the governing African National Congress.
"If Jacob Zuma doesn't want to come here, how does he expect to gain our votes?" One man shouted as a posse of government ministers gathered before hundreds of striking miners.
Another piped up: "Don't you know if the miners here don't vote for you, the ANC is going down?"
Defense Minister Mapisa-Nqakula responded: "We agree, as you see us standing in front of you here, that blood was shed at this place. We agree that it was not something to our liking and, as a representative of the government, I apologize."
When miners started shaking plastic bags of bullet casings at her, evidence of the many bullets that police fired in volleys last Thursday, she said: "I am begging, I beg and I apologize, may you find forgiveness in your hearts."
She added: "The blood that is boiling is not helping anyone here at all."
Police Commissioner Riah Phiyega was criticized this week for absolving her officers of guilt saying: "It was the right thing to do" to fire in alleged self-defense. No police officer was hurt in the shooting though two were savagely hacked to death by strikers last week.
The government did intervene in favor of the strikers, persuading mine managers that no striking miners should be fired in the week that South Africa officially mourns the killings, the presidency said Tuesday.
Managers of Lonmin PLC platinum mine had ordered strikers to report for duty by 7 a.m. Tuesday or get fired, even as some family members still were searching for missing loved ones, not knowing whether they were dead or alive among some 250 arrested protesters or in one of the hospitals.
Zuma rushed home from a regional summit in neighboring Mozambique on Friday to attend to the crisis. He flew directly to the area of Marikana mine and visited wounded miners in the hospital. But he did not come to address the grieving and furious strikers. Tuesday's visit by an inter-ministerial committee was the first official visit to the scene of the shootings.
The first politician to venture here was firebrand Julius Malema, who came Saturday and was welcomed as a hero and used the opportunity to promote his vendetta to get Zuma ousted.
Malema, who was expelled from Zuma's ANC in April but remains an influential figure, on Tuesday told reporters that "President Zuma doesn't care about these people (the striking miners)."
He spoke outside a police station near the mine where he went with strike leaders to file a criminal case of murder against the police for the shootings.
"We strongly believe that it is within the laws and constitution to hold all people who kill other people accountable within the confines of the law," Malema's spokesman Floyd Shivambu told reporters.
Malema said he does not trust a commission of inquiry being arranged by Zuma because it would be "manipulated by the politicians."
Earlier Tuesday at the dusty site of the killings, hundreds of mourners walked barefoot as church leaders blessed the ground, with a Methodist bishop drawing a large cross in the dirt.
"Church members have come to express solidarity in the wake of what really has been a shocking event," Bishop Gavin Taylor said. "It's almost indescribable that people could have been killed in this way."
As others sang hymns one woman, Alakhe Nombeu, sobbed. She said her brother was one of the strikers killed by the police and that she finally found the name of her missing husband among those arrested only three days after the shootings.
Minister in the Presidency Collins Chabane announced that officials by late Tuesday had identified 33 of the 34 bodies of shot miners, including one man from Lesotho, a mountain kingdom surrounded by South Africa. Chabane's spokesman Harold Maloka said it had taken days to check the mine's data base, the government data base and ensure that families were able to identify the men.
"It becomes a long process because some family members were looking for their loved ones and they might not be among the dead at the morgue or the wounded in hospitals," he said.
Meanwhile, two men who survived the mass shooting by police say a traditional healer told the strikers that police bullets would not harm them if they used traditional medicine, the Daily Dispatch newspaper reported Tuesday
They said many of the miners drank a brown muti, or traditional medicine, to strengthen them ahead of the confrontation with police.
"They were cut several times on their upper body and a black substance was smeared on the wounds," Nothi Zimanga said, according to the newspaper in East London, in the country's Eastern Cape where many miners come from. "They were then told when they confront the police they must not look back and must just charge forward. If you look back then the muti will not work."
Miner Bulelani Malawana said he was offered the muti for $125 but turned it down, as did Zimanga.
Some 3,000 rock drill operators started the strike Aug. 10 demanding higher wages. The operators are among the least educated of mine workers, often illiterate and pride themselves of doing the most dangerous job in the mine.
Lonmin announced Tuesday night that the stoppage probably means it will not be able to meet debts coming due on Sept. 30. It said it was meeting with its bankers.
London-registered Lonmin, the world's third-largest platinum producer whose shares have taken a hard knock, already has said that the strike has caused the company to miss this year's production target of 750,000 ounces.
Lonmin reported that about 33 percent of workers expected for the morning shift reported for work Tuesday, up only slightly on 30 percent who reported Monday in response to an earlier ultimatum.
Lonmin said the mine had resumed operations on Monday, but industry experts say a workforce of at least 80 percent is needed to actually produce platinum.
In Cape Town, legislators held a special memorial service at the Parliament in Cape Town on Tuesday. It was opened by ANC chief whip Mathole Motshekga, who addressed an apparent growing tendency to resolve disputes with violence in South Africa.
"It must never be in our psychology as a people that to achieve our demands, we must engage in violence and kill," Motshekga said. "It surely must never be part of our being as a people that the maintenance of law and order should have to end in bloodshed."