MARIKANA, South Africa — Frantic wives searched for missing loved ones, President Jacob Zuma rushed home from a summit, and some miners vowed a fight to the death Friday as police announced a shocking casualty toll from the previous day’s shooting by officers of striking platinum miners: 34 dead and 78 wounded.
Wives of miners at the Lonmin platinum mine northwest of Johannesburg took the place of dead and wounded husbands Friday in staging a protest. Rather than asking higher wages as the miners had done, the women demanded to know why police had opened fire Thursday with automatic rifles, pistols, and shotguns on the strikers, many of whom had been armed with spears, machetes, and clubs.
‘‘Police stop shooting our husbands and sons,’’ read a banner the women held. They kneeled before shotgun-toting police and sang a protest song, saying ‘‘What have we done?’’ in the Xhosa language.
Police insisted that they acted in self-defense, saying the strikers had possessed a pistol taken from a police officer they had beaten to death Monday.
National police Chief Mangwashi Victoria Phiyega told a news conference that Thursday was a sad day for South Africa and that it was not a time for pointing fingers, but many people were comparing the shootings to apartheid-era state violence; political parties and labor unions demanded an investigation.
Zuma returned home from a summit in Mozambique and announced an official inquiry into the killings, which he called shocking and tragic. The president headed directly to the mine, 40 miles northwest of Johannesburg, where his office said he would visit injured miners in the hospital.
At least 10 other people have been killed during the week-old strike, including two police officers battered to death by strikers and two mine security guards burned alive when strikers set their vehicle ablaze.
Makhosi Mbongane, a 32-year-old winch operator, said mine managers should have come to the striking workers rather than send police. Strikers were demanding monthly salary increases from $625 to $1,563. Mbongane vowed that he was not going back to work and would not allow anyone else to do so either.
‘‘They can beat us, kill us, and kick and trample on us with their feet, do whatever they want to do, we aren’t going to go back to work,’’ he said. ‘‘If they employ other people they won’t be able to work either. We will stay here and kill them.’’
Myriad problems are 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.
The shootings ‘‘awaken us to the reality of the time bomb that has stopped ticking — it has exploded,’’ The Sowetan newspaper said in a front-page editorial Friday. ‘‘Africans are pitted against each other . . . . They are fighting for a bigger slice of the mineral wealth of the country.’’
The youth wing of the ruling African National Congress party argues that nationalization of the nation’s mines and farms is the only way to redress the evils of the apartheid past.