MARIKANA, South Africa - The killing by police of 34 striking platinum miners in the bloodiest security operation since the end of white rule cut to the quick of South Africa's psyche on Friday, with people and the media questioning its post-apartheid soul.

Newspaper headlines screamed "Bloodbath", "Killing Field" and "Mine Slaughter", with graphic photographs of heavily armed white and black police officers walking casually past the bloodied corpses of black men lying crumpled in the dust.



The images, along with Reuters television footage of a phalanx of officers opening up with automatic weapons on a small group of men in blankets and t-shirts, rekindled uncomfortable memories of South Africa's racist past.

After over 12 hours of official silence, police minister Nathi Mthethwa confirmed that at least 30 men had died when police moved in against 3,000 striking drill operators armed with machetes and sticks and massed on a rocky outcrop at the mine, 100 km (60 miles) northwest of Johannesburg.

"A lot of people were injured and the number keeps on going up," he said in an interview on Talk Radio 702.

One radio station caller likened the incident, at Lonmin's Marikana platinum plant, to the 1960 Sharpeville township massacre near Johannesburg, when apartheid police opened fire on a crowd of black protesters, killing more than 50.

In a front page editorial, the Sowetan questioned what had changed since 1994, when Nelson Mandela overturned three centuries of white domination to become South Africa's first black president.

"It has happened in this country before where the apartheid regime treated black people like objects," the paper, named after South Africa's biggest black township, said. "It is continuing in a different guise now."

President Jacob Zuma cut short a visit to a regional summit in neighboring Mozambique to head to the mine. Zuma, who faces an internal leadership election in his ruling African National Congress (ANC) in December, said he was "shocked and dismayed" at the violence, but made no comment on the police behavior.

"We believe there is enough space in our democratic order for any dispute to be resolved through dialogue without any breaches of the law or violence," he said in a statement.

Despite promises of a better life for all South Africa's 50 million people, the ANC has struggled to provide basic services to millions in poor black townships. Efforts to redress the economic inequalities of apartheid have had mixed results.

The mining sector comes in for particular criticism from radical ANC factions as a bastion of "white monopoly capital".

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