What began as a typically grating labour dispute between unions and a mining magnate over poor wages and working conditions - the daily grist of fragile labour relations in South Africa - turned quickly into a week of violent clashes with police, talk of death threats and sporadic killings.
And then came the game changer.
Thirty-four striking miners were killed and scores more were wounded when police unleashed a spray of bullets at the assembled crowd outside the Lonmin-owned platinum mine at Marikana on Thursday, in what is being described as the most violent police operation since the end of apartheid.
Confusion over the finer details of the shooting still abounds, but just days later, scrutiny of the shooting itself pales against the more probing questions of the real character of South Africa that it has exposed.
In fact, scrutiny has now fallen on the incongruities of post-apartheid South Africa - perhaps more closely than ever before.
With the aid of the perhaps illusionary rhetoric of "the new South Africa" that is hard at work tackling an ever widening income inequality gap, a rampant rate of gender violence and a stubborn culture of corruption, the ANC-led government has been able to choreograph a compelling narrative of satisfactory growth, multicultural reconciliation, and political stability, at the tip of a continent that many perceive as locked into a spiral of poverty, exploitation and ruthless mismanagement.
In apparent reward for rescuing itself from Apartheid without too much fuss, South Africa punches far above its weight in world politics. The country's inclusion into the BRICS club of emerging economies, its membership to the G20, two stints as a non-permanent member of the UN Security Council and, most recently, its successful election to the chair of the AU Commission, all go to illustrate South Africa's growing clout on the world stage.
Despite being classified as an upper-middle income country by the World Bank, unemployment in South Africa sits between 25 and 36 per cent. An estimated 50 per cent of the population lives under the poverty line. Recently, Unicef said that seven out of ten children live in homes that endure severe poverty. The group also discussed a set of circumstances that places the country in an unlikely position to be able to reunite its diverging societies of rich and poor.
Then in June, the World Bank applied its newly developed Human Opportunity Index to South Africa and the results were far from flattering.
While the report lauded the impressive gains made in access to primary education, electricity and telecommunications, it noted as well that the spatial effects of Apartheid still determined how well these services were actually distributed.
The disparate world of rampant inequality, where the black majority continues to live in an apparent disconnect from the vision of the new dispensation, was echoed widely in angry editorials of the The Sowetan and Amandla magazine, the morning after the shooting.
The Sowetan described South Africa as "an abnormal country … where the value of human life, especially that of the African, continues to be meaningless", while Amandla said the tragedy "sums up the shallowness of transformation".
It is the narrative of transformation, South Africa's ability to emerge from an ugly past through negotiations and reconciliation that has been abruptly torn asunder by events in Marikana this week.
While the world hails South Africa as the definitive gateway to Africa, encouraging the country to assert its clout more prominently across the continent, a growing discontent lurking beneath the surface has been brushed aside. Low-income suburbs are crippled by an overwrought electrical grid; dusty townships remain lawless and insecure, and up to 12 million South Africans live in slums, where they face poor sanitation, barriers to water access and attacks on human dignity.
"Many communities protesting against poor service delivery suffer police repression and excessive state violence on a daily basis," Mngxitama said.
South African police say they were acting in self-defence at Marikana on Thursday, but the scale of the damage, recorded in part by television cameras, has once more set off alarm bells concerning the capacity of the police and a perception among some regarding their inclination towards violence. In 2011, police behaviour was highlighted when community leader Andries Tatane died after a beating, reportedly at the hands of police, during a protest in Ficksburg in the Free State.
Sipho Hlongwane, political correspondent at Daily Maverick, said that the most shocking aspect of the Marikana incident was the reportedly slow response of the police and authorities.
"This incident did not come out of the blue, like perhaps the [Andries] Tatane incident … it was brewing for a week. Ten people had already died and still the police and authorities did nothing," he said.
"The ANC will stop at nothing to defend the narrow interests of the political elite."
Hlongwane's observation is particularly significant when viewed in the context of police operations at community protests in recent years