Johannesburg: After cutting short a trip to neighbouring Mozambique for a summit of regional leaders, South African President on Friday ordered an inquiry into deaths of 34 miners killed by police at a mine in the north-east of the country.
Calling the deaths at Lonmin "tragic", Zuma said he was "saddened and dismayed". The President then offered "sincere condolences" to families of the victims.
"We have to uncover the truth about what happened here. I have decided to institute a commission of inquiry. It will enable us to get to the real cause of the incident and derive the necessary lessons."
The President further refrained from criticising police for shooting down miners, saying: "Today is not an occasion for blame, finger-pointing or recrimination. Today challenges us to restore calm and to share the pain of the affected families and communities. Today is about reminding ourselves of our responsibility as citizens."
Earlier in the day, police said they fired after several unsuccessful attempts to disperse protesters with water cannons, tear gas and stun grenades. Senior police officials showed photographs to prove that the police acted in self-defence.
Police Chief Mangwashi Victoria Phiyega said that Thursday was a dark day for South Africa and no time for pointing fingers, as people compared the shootings to apartheid-era state violence and political parties and labour unions demanded an investigation.
The police in bulletproof vests, some on horseback, were seen firing at a crowd of workers armed with spears, clubs and machetes, with some gunfire also heard from the workers` camp.
The miners at the Lonmin platinum mine in Marikana have been demanding a three-fold salary hike, refusing an order by their union to return to work so that employers could enter into negotiations.
Thursday`s shootings are seen as a microcosm of the myriad problems facing South Africa 18 years after white racist rule ended, including growing inequality between a white minority joined by a small black elite while most blacks endure high unemployment and inadequate housing, health care and education.
Zuma`s government has played down demands that South Africa`s mines and farms be nationalised. His party`s powerful youth wing argues that nationalisation is the only way to redress the evils of the apartheid past.
As an uneasy calm descended on the area, loved ones made their way to morgues to identify the dead.
The Azanian People`s Organisation likened the violence in Marikana to the Sharpeville and Soweto shootings of the apartheid era, when police, acting on the instructions of the white minority government, opened fire on innocent protesters, killing scores of people including young schoolchildren.
Besides the wage demand, the violence at the mine is also believed to be the result of rivalry between members of the National Union of Mineworkers and the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union over recognition agreements at the mine.
In a statement, Lonmin chairman Roger Phillimore said: "We are treating the developments around police operations... with the utmost seriousness.”
It was one of the worst police shootings in South Africa since the end of the apartheid era, and came as a rift deepens between the country`s governing African National Congress and an impoverished electorate confronting massive unemployment and growing poverty and inequality.
(With Agency inputs)