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.