Pro-Palestinian activist Muhammed Desai was removed from a Virgin Active gym for wearing a BDS t-shirt that some fellow gym members said they found offensive. BDS South Africa has now said they will be taking Virgin Active to the SA Human Rights Commission and Equality Court.
BDS South Africa will be taking Virgin Active to the Human Rights Commission for an infringement of freedom of expression.
The action against the gym franchise follows the removal of Muhammed Desai, Boycott Divestment and Sanction (BDS) coordinator, from Virgin Active at Old Eds in Houghton. Desai was escorted away by police for wearing a Young Communist League t-shirt that featured an image of Chris Hani and a BDS message. Desai was reported defending the wearing of his shirt by saying he is a paying member of the gym.
BDS is an international Palestinian solidarity group that calls for economic action against Israel.
Virgin Active said the T-shirt worn by Desai “generated strong complaints” from other gym members and he had previously been asked to not wear such t-shirts to the gym. The statement also said Desai is welcome to return to the gym provided he “respects the conditions of membership”. The statement suggested Desai wore the t-shirt to make a political statement, however the choice to wear the shirt does not directly infringe the gym rules.
Screenshot of Virgin Active’s club rules. Image: Samantha Camara
Virgin Active’s club rules regarding clothing do not limit the wearing of shirts that support a political party or ideology. The rules do however, not allow the use of offensive language, intimidation or threats towards staff and other members.
702 Talk Radio host Redi Thlabi discussed the incident on Thursday during her show, and a caller identified as “Hilton”, claimed to be the person who confronted Desai over the t-shirt.
Hilton accused Desai of provoking the row by wearing the t-shirt and bragged about forcing Desai to remove the t-shirt by threatening to “take this outside and settle it like men”. Hilton said the t-shirt was offensive because the Virgin Active was a “predominately Jewish” gym.
Following the altercation, Desai tweeted this picture of the shirt he wore to the gym:
Muhammed Desai, coordinator of BDS, breaking his vow of silence and addressing the crowd at a protest against an Israeli musician at Wits. Photo: Nokuthula Manyathi
Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) released a statement on Monday condemning the singing of a song with the lyrics “dubula ijuda” (shoot the Jew) at a protest it was a part of.
Some protesters adapted the South African “dubula iboer” to “dubula ijuda” at a protest against an Israeli Musician who was performing at the Wits Great Hall on August 28.
“Given our history of work against racism, including anti-Semitism, we unequivocally distance ourselves from the singing of this song and its sentiments,” said BDS in the statement . BDS condemned anti-Semitism and Zionism, “even if it were to come from within our ranks.”
Coordinator of BDS , Muhammed Desai’s initial response to the song being sung was that many African people in South Africa when using the word “Jews” meant it in the same way they would have during the eighties. “Just like you would say kill the Boer at funeral during the eighties it wasn’t about killing white people, it was used as a way of identifying with the apartheid regime”.
Many found his response unsavory, even BDS supporters. The University of Cape Town’s Palestine Solidarity Forum said it was “dismayed by this reasoning and feels that this version of the song has unacceptable and explicit anti-Semitic elements”. Rhodes University Palestinian Solidarity (RUPSF) forum said Desai held “disturbing views”.
RUPSF said it could not “be complicit in the condoning of racism of whatever sort” and demanded that BDS South Africa offered an “unqualified apology and an unqualified rejection and statements made by Desai”. RUPSF also said it wanted Desai to resign from his position and those involved in making the decision to sing the song excluded from the campaign. RUPSF said that unless these demands were met it could no longer continue supporting BDS South Africa and “the broad campaign it is leading”.
Desai said the people he was reporting to had not asked him to resign so he was not going to. In the statement it released by BDS South Africa condemned the singing of the song but offered no “unqualified apology” and did not mention any plans to take action against those who sang the song.
Both concert organisers and protesters felt like winners after the Daniel Zamir concert that was held at Wits University last night.
Muhammed Desai, coordinator of Boycott Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) South Africa, said the protest had been effective because they were able to make those attending the concert “uncomfortable”.
“I am an alumnus of this university, they are the ones that are outsiders here, and we want them to feel like outsiders,” said Desai
[pullquote]“You have blood on your hands.You think you can use our university to cleanse your image.”[/pullquote]He said because the organisers had to send out an urgent message to those attending the concert to tell them how to get in, which entrances to use and which to avoid is also a sign of victory – “already it shows that they are tense and they are stressed because SA is becoming so difficult for pro-Israeli organisations to operate [in].”
But the organisers also felt that the night was a success. The concert was held as the university’s way of making up for the one that was disrupted in March. The president of the SA Jewish Board of Deputies (SAJBD), Zev Krengel said Wits had lived up to its promise. : “The team was great. I could not fault Wits in anyway.”
Krengel said the protesters were peaceful apart from the group that moved into the corridor and which he described as aggressive. At first the protesters were singing softly but as the night went on they sang and chanted loudly. The protesters confronted and provoked those who came for the concert.
“You have the blood of Palestine children on your jersey,” shouted a protester to a woman who was walking in to the concert area.
“ You have blood on your hands. You think you can use our university to cleanse your image,” said another protester.
Most of the people there to attend the concert passed by the protesters quickly pretending not to notice anything but not all of them. Some passed by the protesters holding up Israel scarves and flags.
“Fuck you!” said a concert attendee to a protester. “Wits University is my University, I have two degrees Wits,” said another person attending the concert replying to a protester who had shouted that they were not welcomed at Wits. Another one gave the protesters the middle finger. Some had to be subdued by those walking with them.
At some point the protesters threw papers at concert attendees as they arrived. They also sang, “dubula i-juda” (“shoot the Jew”), and chanted “there is no such thing as Israel” and “Israel apartheid” as the concert attendees were coming in.
Desai said many African people in South Africa when using the word “Jews” meant it in the same way they would have during the eighties. “Just like you would say kill the Boer at funeral during the eighties it wasn’t about killing white people, it was used as a way of identifying with the apartheid regime”.
He said there was no evidence of Jews being harmed because of anti-Semitic impulses, – “the whole idea anti-Semitism is blown out of proportion”. He said if there were anti-Semitic sentiments they would flatly challenge it even if it came from within their protest.
[pullquote align=”right”]Bring together a Palestine musician and an Israeli one.[/pullquote]
He said there a peaceful process going on and South Africans had to encourage that.
Ari Kruger, who attended the concert said the the term “apartheid” freely used just to evoke enthusiasm and sensitivity among South Africans: “Look at their supporters, the Cosatu guys, I’ve spoken to them on many occasions, they actually don’t have the facts, they are being told, ‘come to the function, apartheid, free Palestine, South Africa’s history is Palestinian reality’ which is actually not true.”
Krengel challenged the BDS and Palestine Solidarity Committee (PSC) to have a joint concert with them, to “bring together a Palestine musician and an Israeli one.”
Dr Shireen Ally, a Wits lecturer who was part of a group that represented Wits staff and students, said the university refused them the right to have a silent protest and move into the Great Hall foyer.
Ally said they would be seeking legal advice because the university had “infringed” on their rights to protest.
Deputy vice-chancellor, Prof Tawana Kupe said the university had given permission for a silent protest, just not permission to be in the foyer which the protesters had not asked for anyway.
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