The killing by police of more than 30 striking platinum miners in the bloodiest security operation since the end of white rule cut to the quick of South Africa's psyche yesterday, 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 television footage showing 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.
Police chief Riah Phiyega confirmed 34 dead and 78 injured after officers moved in against 3,000 striking drill operators armed with machetes and sticks and massed on a rocky outcrop at the mine, 100 kilometres northwest of Johannesburg.
Phiyega, a former banking executive who was only appointed to lead the police force in June, said officers had acted in self-defence against charging, armed assailants at Lonmin's Marikana platinum plant.
"The police members had to employ force to protect themselves from the charging group," she said, noting two policemen were hacked to death by a mob at the mine on Tuesday.
President Jacob Zuma announced he would create a commission of inquiry to probe the killings, saying there was "something serious" behind the violence. "This is not a day to apportion blame, it is a day to mourn together," he adeed.
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 asked whether anything had changed since 1994, when Nelson Mandela overturned three centuries of white domination to become the first black president of the continent's biggest economy.
"It has happened in this country before where the apartheid regime treated black people like objects," the paper said. "It is continuing in a different guise now."
As dawn broke, hundreds of police patrolled the dusty plains around the Marikana mine, which was forced to shut down this week as a rumbling union turf war that has hit the platinum sector this year boiled over into violence. Before Thursday, 10 people - including two policemen - had died in nearly a week of fighting between rival unions at what is Lonmin's flagship plant.
The London-headquartered company has been forced to shut down all its South African platinum operations, which account for 12 per cent of global platinum output.
Although the striking Marikana miners were demanding huge pay rises, the roots of the trouble lie in a challenge by the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union to the 25-year dominance of the National Union of Mineworkers, a close ally of the ruling African National Congress (ANC).
Union leaders were criticised for telling the striking miners - many of whom are barely literate - that they were "prepared to die" rather than move from their protest hill.