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Scenes of the bloodshed, televised around the world, tore at the international image of a progressive country freed from the violence of apartheid.
President Jacob Zuma called for "healing and rebuilding" and ordered an inquiry. But the deaths struck at the core values of his ruling African National Congress (ANC), which came to power as a liberation movement, and will raise the stakes when Zuma faces a leadership contest later this year.
There was a stunned silence among many of South Africa's leading politicians and trade unions in the aftermath of the shootings which took place at a platinum mine 60 miles northwest of Johannesburg.
Acutely sensitive to echoes of the notorious Sharpeville and Soweto killings, which were committed under white rule by the security forces, television and radio reports were restrained. But some commentators dared to speak what many evidently felt as more details emerged of the violence last Thursday.
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"A very powerful message has been sent out and it is about time a little discipline was restored into the mindset of South Africans," said an opinion piece in The Star, a Johannesburg newspaper.
Others asked what had changed since 1994 when Nelson Mandela overturned 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," said The Sowetan newspaper. "It is continuing in a different guise now."
Witchcraft played a part in the tragedy. The prelude to the slaughter was a naked dance, caught on a police video, of a group of singing strikers anointed with bullet-defying potions by sangomas, or witch doctors.
"You can see on film that many of the workers were wearing muti [magic charms]," said Charles van Onselen, a labour historian. "Typically, the idea behind such muti is that it makes you invincible against your enemies."
Some strikers were photographed licking the edges of spears and waving machetes. Last Tuesday two policemen, two security guards and a company supervisor were hacked to death in a preliminary skirmish.
The dispute had been poisoned by rivalry between a new union and the ANC's traditional National Union of Mineworkers, which had complicated negotiations with the owner, Lonmin, a London-based mining firm.
Three days of talks had failed to persuade the 3000 strikers to lay down their arms and disperse. So the police planned to force them off the Wonderkop hilltop which they had occupied for a week, using tear gas and water cannon if necessary.
Joseph Mathunjwa, 47, the leader of the breakaway Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union, had begged his members to leave. "I pleaded with them: the writing is on the wall, they are going to kill you," he said.
However, video footage showed a sudden wild charge by a group of spear-waving men, tearing towards a line of police dressed in helmets and flak jackets and armed with pistols and automatic weapons.
Siphiwe Sibeko, a Reuters photographer, said at least one striker had fired a pistol at the police before they shot back.
A few ragged shots rang out in response from the police and then volleys of gunfire kicked up clouds of dust as the strikers could be seen crumpling to the ground.
The shooting stopped after a white police officer in a blue beret, furiously waving his arm up and down, shouted "cease fire!" and others then echoed his command.
By then 34 men were sprawled dead and the reputation of modern South Africa lay in the dust. The local press called it "the hill of horror".
The miners, who were demanding that their wages be tripled, owe their loyalties to tribal chiefs in remote villages. They toil in backbreaking conditions and still live in sexually segregated dormitories as they did in the days of apartheid.
There was a palpable sense of shock that South Africa has failed to escape its history: after the abandonment of apartheid, the country finds itself back in a situation where armed police mow down protesting Africans - on camera.
There is a strong popular sense that the country is effectively leaderless. Zuma is widely viewed as a do-nothing president, anxious only to keep his balance among the ANC factions and more interested in his harem of wives and accumulating wealth for his family.
The influential Afrikaans daily Die Burger suggested that the mine shootings were another example of how the Zuma government was merely blundering about and is "losing its grip".
The official commission of inquiry will face all these conundrums. Even if it confines itself to technical issues about police tactics it will not be able to contain the shock caused by the shootings.
The political impact is already clear: Julius Malema, a charismatic ANC youth leader who was expelled by the establishment, was quickly on the scene at the mine. He will be only the first to begin translating this shock into political action which will inevitably be aimed at toppling Zuma.
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