JOHANNESBURG, South Africa — Thousands of grieving families, miners, union and government officials gathered Thursday at a troubled platinum mine in South Africa to mourn 34 striking miners killed by police.
Mourners assembled on the dusty plain outside the Lonmin mine that has been nicknamed “South Africa’s killing fields.”
They were there to remember friends, relatives and coworkers who were shot dead by police on that spot a week earlier, on August 16.
Local church leader Daniel Modisenyane attended Thursday's service and said it was grave, but calm. He estimated that some 6,000 people attended.
Modisenyane said the community will struggle to deal with the loss.
“It was not possible for them to forget since this drew global attention to what has happened, since they were all hurt, we could not know how to comfort each of them. They were so hurt, they were so traumatized,” said Modisenyane.
Workers at the mine went on strike for higher wages earlier this month. Growing tension and unrest culminated in last Thursday’s incident. In all, 44 people, including two policemen, have died on this spot in a week of violence.
South African President Jacob Zuma declared a national week of mourning. Flags are flying at half-staff around the country. The government also has ordered an investigation.
Lonmin issued a message to striking workers Monday: Get back to work, or you’re fired. The mine operators later softened that stance, extended the deadline and have enlisted religious leaders to oversee talks with striking workers.
Lonmin said Thursday it would allow all of its workers - there are about 28,000 at the mine some 100 kilometers northwest of Johannesburg - to attend the service.
The company also said it held a minute of silence Thursday morning and that it has set up a bank account to help the families of the dead.
Lonmin Chairman Roger Phillimore said the shooting incident was “unquestionably the saddest loss in the history of this company.” He said the company leadership is grieving and offered condolences to families.
Mining is one of South Africa’s biggest industries. The events at the mine have had international consequences and have affected global platinum prices and Lonmin share prices.
The event also has shaken South Africans who say such violent images of police firing at protesters remind them of the apartheid era.
Church leader Modisenyane said he hopes Thursday’s service will promote reconciliation. He said he will encourage people to forgive.
“It is so important because this will cause them bitterness inside each of them, this will cause them stress, this will cause them another life to come out of this world," said Modisenyane. "So they need to forgive. Since the one who will enable them is the one we are comforting them about: God, no other one.”
Wage negotiations continue between the mining company and striking workers.