South African Gym Virgin Active Boots BDS Activist Muhammed Desai for Pro-Palestine T-Shirt
A South African man wearing a pro-Palestinian T-shirt supporting a boycott of Israel was kicked out of a Johannesburg gym on Wednesday.
Muhammed Desai, an activist with the South African branch of the international Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement, was asked first by management and then by police to leave a Virgin Active gym in Old Eds after showing up with a red T-shirt featuring the image of South African Communist Party and African National Congress (ANC) leader Chris Hani, a fierce opponent of South Africa’s racist apartheid regime who was assassinated in 1993.
“From the coast of Cape Town to the coast of Gaza, in solidarity with Palestinians against Israeli apartheid,” the back of Desai’s T-shirt read.
“I often wear my Youth League or BDS T-shirts when I go to the gym, but yesterday I got a call from the branch manager saying that in the interest of my own safety, I shouldn’t wear these t-shirts when I come to the gym,” Desai told the Daily Vox.
“[Branch manager] Jason Gripper said that if I tried to enter a Virgin Active club in the country wearing a BDS T-shirt, that I will be removed and will be denied access from the gym,” added Desai. “When I got there, the on-duty manager said that my membership is going to be suspended, that I’m not going to be allowed to come in here wearing a BDS T-shirt as this is something that many Israeli supporters who frequent the gym have been complaining about.”
In a video posted on YouTube, a manager at the gym tells Desai, “we fear for your safety.”
“I was told that I’m not allowed to wear my T-shirt because it’s pro-Palestinian, that is has boycott apartheid Israel on it and some people are offended at being against apartheid,” Desai says in the video.
Virgin Active released a statement saying the company’s goal is to maintain “neutral spaces” where members can focus on pursuing their health and wellness goals “while at the same time accommodating the rights and freedoms of all members.”
The statement continued:
The T-shirt worn by Mr Desai generated strong complaints from fellow members at the Old Eds club and he was politely requested by management not to wear it in future. He aggressively declined this request and said he would force entry if he was refused. When he appeared at the club, clearly intent on making a political statement and generating confrontation, management were genuinely concerned about the potential consequences and called on the police to intervene.
While Virgin Active insisted that “no legal item of clothing is banned” from its gyms, it said that “we do not believe our clubs should be forums for contentious political activity.”
By Thursday morning, Virgin Active was top trending on Twitter, with many expressions of solidarity with Palestine and Desai appearing on that and other social media sites.
There were also a few shows of support for banning Desai’s T-shirt:
Some people said that while they supported Desai’s right to wear the controversial T-shirt, it was insensitive for him to do so in such a mixed environment.
“I am Jewish and I care for Israel while being very concerned and critical of its current policies and trends,” Virgin Active Old Eds member Adina Roth wrote on the gym’s Facebook page. “Of course Desai should have been allowed to wear his T-shirt and I wish the management had not asked him to remove it because look at the splits and divisions being fomented. From a rights point of view, he should have been ignored.”
“But from a sensitivity point of view, I will say my kids have Israel Defense Force T-shirts,” Roth continued. “And they won’t wear them to Killarney Mall or other places where Muslim people or others might be offended. I would not go to a place that is about community building and peace wearing something I know might be inciteful and create division.”
Still others noted how Desai had defended protesters who chanted “Kill the Jew” at a 2013 BDS demonstration at Johannesburg University.
The call to kill Jews was “just like you would say ‘kill the Boer’ at a funeral during the eighties; it wasn’t about killing white people, it was used as a way of identifying with the apartheid regime,” Desai explained at the time.
South Africans, especially black people who suffered through generations of minority white rule during apartheid, have long been vocal critics of Israeli policies and actions in Palestine.
Former South African president, anti-apartheid hero and Nobel peace laureate Nelson Mandela was a vocal critic of what he once called “injustice and gross human rights violations” committed by Israel in Palestine. Desmond Tutu, the former archbishop who was also awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his anti-apartheid work, has accused Israel of practicing apartheid, lamenting “the humiliation of Palestinians at checkpoints and roadblocks, suffering like us when young white police officers prevented us from moving about.” Tutu was called an anti-Semite and was subjected to racist abuse, including being called a “black Nazi pig” when he visited Jerusalem in 1989.
ANC Chairwoman Baleka Mbete, who has also visited Palestine, has condemned a situation she called “far worse than apartheid in South Africa.”
Former US President Jimmy Carter has also embraced the ‘apartheid’ analogy. In 2006, Carter, who won the Nobel Peace Prize for brokering the historic Israel-Egypt peace deal at Camp David in 1978, echoed Mbete and said that Israel’s apartheid is worse than South Africa’s:
“When Israel [occupies] territory deep within the West Bank, and connects the 200 or so settlements with each other with a road and then prohibits the Palestinians from using that road, or in many cases even crossing that road, this perpetuates even worse instances of apartness, or apartheid, than we witnessed even in South Africa.”
In 2013, South African Foreign Minister Maite Nkoana-Mashabane slammed Israel’s ongoing illegal settler colonization of occupied Palestinian territory, saying the Jewish state’s actions “kept her awake” nights.
“The last time I looked at the map of Palestine, I could not go to sleep. Its dots, [they’re] smaller than those of the homelands,” Nkoana-Mashabane added, referring to the former Bantustans, tiny territorial enclaves where millions of black South Africans were forced to live during the racial segregation of apartheid.
Israeli settlements are illegal under international law, as the Fourth Geneva Convention expressly states that an occupying power “shall not deport or transfer parts of its own population into the territory it occupies.” But many Israelis believe that ‘God’ promised them, as ‘His’ chosen people,’ all of Palestine, which was the site of ancient Jewish kingdoms. But from biblical times until the early 20th century, Jews never numbered more than 10 percent of the population of the territory that would become the modern Jewish state of Israel.
According to the United Nations, Israel has established around 150 official settler colonies, as well as another 100 or so unapproved outposts, since conquering and illegally occupying the West Bank, East Jerusalem, Gaza and the Golan Heights during the 1967 Six Day War. In 1972, there were some 10,000 Jews living in settlements. By 2008, there were more than 500,000, with thousands more Jews settling on Palestinian land each year.
United Nations human rights official Richard Falk, a Jewish American, has repeatedly asserted that Israeli settlement expansion is a “form of ethnic cleansing.”
Desai has repeatedly said it is the duty of South Africans to oppose what he calls Israel’s “apartheid” policies and actions in Palestine.
“In many ways, being South African puts one in a very privileged, but also difficult, position,” he told Electronic Intifada in a 2012 interview. “South Africans carry this moral weight, which at times is a privilege, but it also is a responsibility—a responsibility that we carry with a lot of pride, but at the same time it is a responsibility, because we were the recipients. We were the recipients of international solidarity on a scale that has never been seen before. We were the recipients of the people mobilizing on the streets of the world in the hundreds of thousands, if not in the millions.”