Coloured people were on the verge of an uprising, fed up with years of “systematic discrimination” by the state, the leader of rights group Camissa Movement for Equality, Jerome Lottering, told the United Nations Human Rights Commission (UNHRC) in March.
He lobbied representatives from various countries to make demands for coloured people’s development during the universal periodic review (UPR), a peer review mechanism set up by the UN to monitor the human rights track record of member countries.
As the UPR took place this week, Lottering’s claims of discrimination and warnings about an uprising appeared to be vindicated. Residents of Eldorado Park, Ennerdale and Kliptown, south of Johannesburg, took to the streets, demanding housing and economic development.
Lottering played a role in galvanising the demonstrations that led to violence and disruptions in the predominantly coloured townships on Monday and Tuesday.
He mobilised support for the protests at a meeting attended by more than 1 000 people in Eldorado Park on Sunday.
Then he distanced himself from the ensuing closure of roads and confrontations between residents and police, and was noticeably absent from the most violent clashes.
Despite the dubious timing of the demonstrations taking place at the same time as the UPR and Lottering’s claims to the UNHRC being put to the test, the charismatic civic leader insisted the cause was genuine.
Civic leader Jerome Lottering denies inciting violence, saying the demonstrations were spontaneous and unplanned. (Oupa Nkosi, M&G)
“The people are genuinely angry and they actually decided by themselves to protest peacefully for houses,” he said this week.
The housing shortage in Gauteng’s coloured townships featured prominently in Lottering’s March presentation in Geneva, Switzerland.
He presented an informal survey of 2 000 families in Eldorado Park, and told delegates that coloured people were desperate for accommodation.
Supporting him during the community meeting on Sunday and on the frontline of this week’s protests was the Greater Eldorado Business Forum and other “Camissa activists”, many of whom were among the 54 people arrested for looting and public violence.
Lottering said those arrested were “Camissa people”.
“Many of those people are young coloured men and their mothers can’t even see them [in custody]. Those guys are Camissa activists; they are our people,” he said.
But he has not been able to see the arrested “activists” in the Eldorado Park and Ennerdale holding cells, because a warrant has been issued for his arrest.
Police believe Lottering incited residents of Eldorado Park, Ennerdale and Kliptown to vandalise public property, disrupt schooling and block roads, a claim he’s denied.
“I did not tell people to loot or damage property. Our position is that for those people caught looting, the law must take its course,” Lottering said.
At the heart of this allegation is a series of WhatsApp messages and voice notes circulated in the three areas on Monday and Tuesday, and again on Wednesday morning.
“There will be a massive strike on Friday all roads will be blocked … kids should stay at home, if you go to work please do it at your own risk … Jerome Camissa,” a WhatsApp message reads.
Lottering explained that the protest had been infiltrated by “criminal elements” and that he only communicated with residents through bulk SMSes sent to 350 unique cellphone numbers, and never via WhatsApp.
But his denial was lambasted by some of his supporters, who perceived his absence from the most confrontational areas of protest as being a sign of cowardice.
“Jerome was motivating us for the shutdown and talking big. Now, when it happens, he’s nowhere to be found,” Rene Fresling, a resident of Kliptown, said this week.
On Wednesday a multistakeholder forum including school principals, community policing forums, religious leaders and business owners met at the Eldorado Park Secondary School to chart a way towards reopening schools and to discuss how to end the protests.
Lottering stormed out of the meeting, claiming that Camissa had been sidelined. He was begged to return but, in what some claimed to be a display of power, he refused.
“Camissa is the only organisation that can call a meeting now and get a thousand people here. These people can’t even get 300 people in a hall,” Lottering proclaimed.
Later that evening, he called on the residents to boycott meetings with the Johannesburg mayor Herman Mashaba because the city had not yet met with Camissa leaders.
Lottering also attributed the “ceasefire” in the protest to his discussions with human settlements officials in the Gauteng provincial government, saying he had “given the province the assurance that the protests won’t continue”.
“We want the province and the city to come together and present one plan to us, about housing development,” he said.