South African police say they acted out of self-defense when they opened fire on striking miners Thursday, killing 34 and wounding 78, and while the government sets up a commission to investigate, the police chief is not sounding particularly contrite. "The militant group stormed towards the police firing shots and wielding dangerous weapons," Police Commissioner Riah Phiyega said at a news conference on Friday, according to Agence France-Presse's Johannes Myburgh. "Police retreated systematically and were forced to utilise maximum force to defend themselves."
As the miners' union boss has accused police of a massacre, Phiyega said police had done all they could to defend themselves before opening fire, and she pointed to the weapons carried by the protesters as justification for the police's use of force. "Previous attempts by the 500-strong police force to repel the crowd with rubber bullets, water cannons and stun grenades had failed, she said," according to The New York Times' Lydia Polgreen. "The police retrieved six guns from the protesters, including one that had been taken from a police officer who was hacked to death by the workers earlier in the week, Ms. Phiyega said, as well as many machetes, cudgels and spears." Police also "said they had evidence some of the protesters had used witchcraft, known as 'muti' and involving them being anointed with special potions, to give themselves courage in the heat of battle," Reuters' Pascal Fletcher reported. That report doesn't say police are using the witchcraft itself as a justification for shooting the protesters, but the implication is that if the miners believed they were impervious to bullets, they would be less easily deterred.
But while she defended her officers, Phiyega said, "this is no time for finger-pointing," and stressed that "it is a time for all of us to mourn the sad and dark moment we experienced as a country." The finger-pointing will come soon enough, as the police and an government-appointed commission investigate what happened at what's already being dubbed "Hill of Horror."
Meanwhile, some of the best analysis we've seen of footage from the incident comes in this segment from South Africa's eNews Channel, below: