MARIKANA, South Africa — South African police fired on machete-wielding workers engaged in a wildcat strike at a platinum mine here Thursday, leaving a field strewn with bodies and a deepening fault line between the governing African National Congress and a nation that, 18 years after the end of apartheid, is increasingly impatient with deep poverty, rampant unemployment and yawning inequality.
In a scene that reminded some South Africans of the days when police of the apartheid government opened fire on protesters, heavily armed officers shot into a charging crowd of workers who walked off the job last Friday, saying their wages needed to be tripled.
The strike has pitted the country’s largest mine workers union, which is closely allied with the governing ANC, against a radical upstart union demanding sharp pay increases and faster action to improve the grim living and working standards for miners.
The strike and the government’s iron-fisted response are emblematic of the frustration with the slow pace of transforming South Africa’s largely white-owned business establishment and the growing perception that the ANC and its allies have become too cozy with big business.
''NUM has deserted us,’’ said one of the striking workers, who gave his name as Kelebone, referring to the older union, the National Union of Mineworkers. ‘‘NUM is working with the white people and getting money. They forgot about the workers.’’
At least six bodies were visible after the shooting ended, and SAPA, South Africa’s main news agency, reported that 18 people were killed.
Most of the workers who walked off the job last week were members of the Association of Mine Workers and Construction Union, a newer and more radical union. Lonmin, the London-based company that operates the mine, shut down operations Tuesday amid the violent strike.
Just before 4 p.m. Thursday, after repeated warnings to the crowd of about 3,000 miners to disarm and disperse, the police began firing tear gas and water cannons to try to get them to leave, according to witnesses. In video captured by several news organizations, police appeared to fire upon a group of workers who charged toward them.
Helen Zille, leader of the opposition Democratic Alliance, called the shootings a massacre. President Jacob Zuma condemned the violence but refrained from criticizing the police, saying in a statement that, ‘‘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 he had ‘‘instructed law enforcement agencies to do everything possible to bring the situation under control and to bring the perpetrators of violence to book.’’