Muhammed Desai | 27 Shawaal 1436/13 August 2015
A transcript of Desai’s version of events as shared on Cii Radio’s Sabahul Khair. Desai is an office bearer at BDS South Africa.
WATCH a video of proceedings HERE
“I have consistently being wearing my BDS/Free Palestine/Boycott Israel T-Shirts when I go to the gym, I have been doing this for the past 2-3 years already. Sometimes it would make so people uncomfortable. On the other hand, it would make other people very comfortable to see such messaging.
However, yesterday I got a call from the branch manager saying that in the interests of my safety, I should not wear the T-shirt anymore to Virgin Active. I explained that I am happy with my own safety and can take care of myself. It was then that he made it very clear that he will not allow me to be at the gym wearing a BDS or Boycott Israel T-Shirt because this offends other gym-goers. I asked for policy, I asked for something in writing from their legal department. Before I could get anything, Mr Jason Gripper from the regional office called me to notify that if I were to enter any Virgin Active club anywhere in the country, I would be barred access if I was wearing a BDS t-shirt. Again I asked for policy or something in writing. I then informed them that I will be at the gym later this evening, as I am a paid up member and there is no policy barring me access.
When I got to the gym, the branch member said that my membership is going to be suspended and I am thus not allowed onto the floor of the gym. Again, I sought the relevant policy in writing.
This altercation drew the attention of fellow gym goers. This was very distressing, troubling and disturbing – one gym goer who was evidently a pro-Israeli advocate had said that he was given a “guarantee” by the “highest levels of management of this company” that none of this(i.e. Boycott Israel t-shirts) will be allowed at the gym anymore.
This then made me realise that this was clearly an issue where the Israeli lobby and its supporters have been pressuring Virgin Active to try to shut down that space to any sort of expression with the Palestinian people.
The t-shirt I was wearing last night was actually not a BDS t-shirt but a YCL t-shirt that had the image of anti-apartheid icon Chris Hani on the one side and on the other side it had a simple message that spoke about being in solidarity from the coast of Cape Town to the coast of Gaza with Palestinians against Israeli Apartheid. It would seem that the word Apartheid is what offended many at the gym – but this is offending people who are racist or pro-apartheid.
I was quite clear that if anybody is unhappy with this, then they are quite welcome to use another gym or set up their own gym, because I see for example many Israeli defense force t-shirts. This upsets me, I don’t like to see it.
What I also realise is that we live in a constitutional democracy, people have a right to wear such t-shirts, but by the same token, I have the right to wear my own t-shirt with my own messaging for as long as it is not a form of hate speech. And I don’t think anyone, including Virgin Active can even possibly make the claim that the t-shirts that I wear constitute hate speech.
The police were called on to remove me at some stage. Management wanted the police to arrest me after I had exited the building. The police explained to Virgin Active that they cannot possibly arrest somebody for wearing such a t-shirt. The management tried to claim that this was for the safety of the gym goer, in case somebody wanted to assault me. The police then pointed out that they will more then happily arrest anyone who does the assault, but they cannot possibly arrest somebody who will be assaulted.
Virgin Active really stepped out of its line, first by barring somebody who was wearing a pro-Palestinian t-shirt and also by calling in the police.
What is very encouraging is that since that incident last night, many people have taken to social media to declare that they will be unapologetically – loudly and proudly – wearing their pro-Palestinian T-shirts, not to provoke anyone, but simply to affirm their right to have these positions and to wear t-shirts that convey these positions, in order not to be self censored because this is exactly what the Israeli lobby wants us to do. They want us to be scared to air our views.
Going forward, I have been mandated by BDS South Africa to go to the human rights commission and the equality court to find justice using these legal avenues. Secondly, the calls on social media for gym-goers to wear their regalia loudly and proudly to these outlets should be commended – not in the way of provocation, but as a way of affirming their right to expression and solidarity with the Palestinian people.
I have been assured that I will receive a letter from the MD of the company saying that I am not allowed into the gym, but I doubt that they will stick to that, they have obviously seen the outcry both on social media and mainstream media.
Right now, their stance seems to be backfiring both in terms of the Israeli lobby and the pressure it was applying on the gym, but also on the gym itself. More people are definately going to be in those gyms wearing pro-Palestinian and boycott Israel messages and this is going to make all those bigots and racists more uncomfortable than they have ever been, and this should be encouraged because we cannot allow Zionists to use the freedom of expression card to suppress Palestinian solidarity or expression in support of the Palestinians. They have a history of pressuring the media, companies and universities, and here we have an opportunity to ensure that they are not allowed to win over this space.
Posted by: Azad Essa
Pro-Palestinian activist Muhammed Desai was thrown out of a Virgin Active gym on Wednesday, for the free-speech-protected act of wearing a political t-shirt. Daily Vox executive editor AZAD ESSA says Virgin Active has some explaining to do – and so does Desai.
After his dismissal from a Virgin Active club in Houghton on Wednesday evening, Muhammed Desai, national co-ordinator for the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions campaign in South Africa (BDS-SA), is going to have a very busy day. Desai was sporting a Young Communist League (YCL) BDS-SA t-shirt which said, “From the coast of Cape Town to the coast of Gaza, in solidarity with Palestinians against Israeli Apartheid”. He was reportedly asked to leave the gym because his T-shirt was deemed politically inflammatory.
Journalist Yusuf Omar captured theaftermath of the incident on video, and before long, Virgin Active was trending across social networks in South Africa. The Virgin Active chain has come under attack for quelling “freedom of speech”, as many demand an explanation for the incident.
Virgin Active must explain how they made the decision to expel Desai. Is it only one particular kind of t-shirt that gets you booted out of one of their clubs? I look forward to their explanation. If immediate public sentiment is to be believed, many will be cancelling their club membership today if Virgin doesn’t conjure up satiable spin.
But Virgin Active is not the only party here with some questions to answer.
In the world of activism, radical politics and resistance, Desai too must be accountable.
The worldwide BDS movement is an important component of the activism surrounding Palestinian solidarity. Boycotts, material or symbolic, can have far-reaching consequences if part of a greater political movement. Israel is imploding; a highly functional, efficient BDS will play a crucial role in disabling this apartheid state.
Magic number three
Around a year ago, BDS-SA made Woolworths the primary object of their national campaign. The all-in-one lazy man’s dream world was targeted not for supplying mass sums of money to the apartheid state, but for stocking three Israeli items – pomegranates, figs and pretzels.
To be sure, Woolworths should remove these items from its list of goods. But, when compared to other South African companies, including Pick & Pay and Checkers, Woolworths’ relationship with Israel seems rather trivial.
Consider this: in June, Philip Krawitz, the founder and owner of the excellent outdoor chain Cape Union Mart was honoured for his contribution to Israel. Krawitz reportedly spearheaded the Cape Town Jewish community’s fundraising efforts during Israel’s invasion of Gaza last year, which killed 2,200 Palestinians and 71 Israelis. According to the Jewish Report, Cape Town was the biggest fund raiser for Israel per capita in the world last year.
So, why has BDS-SA not pitched a tent outside a Cape Union Mart?
Or how about, the security company G4S, which provides equipment and services to Israeli prisons, where thousands of Palestinians and Israeli Arabs are held without charge? South African banks use G4S. Why not specifically organise a boycott against them? Or, how about the fact that G4S runs prisons in South Africa, at the behest of government? Shouldn’t BDS use its ties to the ANC structures to lobby against G4S?
The BDS campaign against Woolworths is little more than a shouting match that absolves the prickly conscience of their supporters.
In the world of middle-class activism, the decision to target Woolworths, instead of any others, is about winning political points rather making an actual dent on Israel. It is so obscure that there is hardly anything substantially symbolic about it either. If Woolworths stops selling Israeli figs, pretzels, and pomegranates, what would it mean?
By its very nature, Woolworths feeds on the guilty conscience of the South African middle class, to splurge while swiping their My School cards. Woolworths gives white guilt an outlet to express its consumer self.
So we are then in a peculiar conundrum.
By targeting Woolworths, BDS-SA looks to double middle class guilt without actually offering an alternative; in other words, the Woolworths boycott is fundamentally flawed because it targets the fickle, the people who want to feel good about themselves while spending. But most South Africans don’t shop at Woolworths. Many don’t have proper housing or food security. The boycott of Woolworths is exclusionary by nature: it has no chance of becoming universal.
There is nothing radical about boycotting a luxury item like strawberry smoothies or organic cotton t-shirts from Woolworths. Targeting
This disconnect of BDS-SA from a project of radical love for the Palestinians, or indeed all marginalised people, is especially evident by its figurehead Muhammad Desai being kicked out of an upper middle class gym for wearing a t-shirt.
He didn’t get kicked off a Jews-only bus. He wasn’t asked to get off a whites-only bench. He was wearing a t-shirt in an expensive gym where many ordinary South Africans are excluded anyway.
When he was told he had to leave because of his t-shirt, he replied: “My argument is clear, I am paid up member of this club, and I have a right to be here, and have a right to access the gym; those who are offended at human rights, those are the ones [with] the problem”.
What, you might ask, is the problem with a BDS activist doing his cardio at a branch of a large, nationwide gym?
Like any other massive corporate, Virgin is a monster player in the gym world in South Africa. With Virgin expanding into small towns and suburbs, it’s hard for any local gym to compete with the monster’s financial infrastructure; the same way corner stores struggle when Checkers and Pick & Pay supermarkets comes to town.
BDS-SA might be targeting Woolworths, but do they have no stance when it comes to the collusion of white capital in this country? Virgin is a part of a nefarious system of white ownership and commercial relations that keeps the majority disenfranchised, and keeps the structurally perverse system intact. The question must be asked: Why is an understanding of systemic oppression and a true commitment to political change so limited in middle-class activist circles?
Is Desai’s politics so deficient that he talks about Palestinian rights by day and then jogs next to a CEO of a JSE-listed company on a treadmill at the Virgin Active by night?
Is there a radical feature to this BDS-SA movement or is it all top-down hackery that rests on, at worst, career-activism and at best, selective-activism?
Make no mistake, this is not about Desai. It is about the cancer eating its way around the leadership of our trade unions, the communist youth leagues and much of our activism.
Writing in The Con mag late last November, Camalita Naicker argued that international BDS principles required that solidarity with Palestinians be rooted in the principles of equality, justice and freedom.
“These principles are meant to be rooted in non-racialism, and in solidarity with all people, especially local people who face oppression every day. BDS-SA does not conform to these principles,” Naicker wrote.
Let’s be clear: in no way do we support the booting out of Desai from the Virgin Active for wearing a t-shirt advocating for a boycott of Israel. We will scream, shout, bite and snarl and join the spectacle of outrage currently unfurling across South Africa for his right to do so. Virgin Active must know that their action at the gym was weak at best, and unconstitutional at its worst.
But Desai and co must know too that we aren’t fooled.
A radical BDS-South Africa should be highly ethical, principled, and be categorically rooted in the economic and political struggles of this country. It would go out of its way to root out anti-Semitism even as it fights Zionism, and would be determined to crack down on any indiscipline in this regard. It would be open to dissent and dialogue and, crucially, it would not break a sweat in a temple of white capital. That too, in a boycott-Israel t-shirt.