MARIKANA, South Africa - Widows sobbed on the dusty ground as clergymen led a service in memory of 44 people killed during a wildcat strike, just steps away from where South African police gunned most of them down. Minutes later, a widow collapsed at the foot of a rocky hill where 34 miners were killed in just a few minutes of gunfire, in the deadliest day of protest since apartheid’s viciously racist rule. Thousands of mourners and sympathisers singing hymns in Xhosa and Zulu crammed into two white marquee tents erected near the scene of the massacre.

Others stood in sweltering heat, opening umbrellas to shield themselves from the sun for a memorial service that drew in workers from across South Africa’s platinum belt.

Emotional representatives of workers angrily chased away people gathered in small groups around the killing field, but gave no reasons for their action.

As the clergy spoke, women sobbed uncontrollably. One director of the service made a passionate public appeal from the microphone for any social workers in the crowd to attend to the bereaved.

“There are many people suffering,” he said.

The Anglican bishop of Pretoria, Johannes Seoka, led the prayers, recounting how religious leaders tried to broker talks at the peak of the tensions but were denied access to the striking workers by police — shortly before the killings that shook Africa’s most developed democracy.

“I believe if they had allowed us to go back to talk to the workers, there would not have been any need to shoot,” he said.

“The 34 lives we have lost are wasted,” he said. “It should not have happened”.

The Anglican Archbishop of Cape Town, Thabo Makgoba, asked: “God, where were you when our children were shot? God, where were you when they were not paid wages they should be paid?

“We were shot, but let’s not take revenge. We can move from pain to healing, from brokenness to wholeness, from fighting to reconciliation.”

Amid the mourning, a big white candle was lit as a symbol of the comfort and healing the clergy sought for the families.

“It’s so difficult. We are angry with the police, we are angry with the government,” said Nceba Gcelu, consoling the widow of 36-year old Msebetsane Nosipele.

“This is a very difficult day for us. I am lost for words.”

The tents proved too small for the thousands who came to pour out their emotions.

Organisers had to lay an extra row of chairs in front for the mourning families while cars parked near the white tent had to be removed to make way for thousands of other sympathisers who could not fit inside.

The sermons and prayers were punctuated by song and dance, including the apartheid-era Zulu funeral song “Senzeni na”, which means “What have we done?”

After the ceremony, more than 1,000 workers moved up to the hill, where a ceremony was conducted by Bishop Sylvester Nulodwe of the United Church of God in Marikana to cleanse the area as part of African tradition.

A man wearing a feathered cap stood by the clergy, before workers broke into song and dance wielding traditional clubs and sticks.