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.
This column was first published in Daily Vox. Azad Essa is Daily Vox executive editor.
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 the aftermath 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 it made the decision to expel Desai. Is it only one particular kind of T-shirt that gets you booted out of one of its clubs? I look forward to its 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 they are part of a greater political movement. Israel is imploding; a highly functional, efficient BDS will play a crucial role in disabling this apartheid state.
But as it stands right now, the organised South African chapter of the global BDS movement is little more than a joke.
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 n 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 fundraiser 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 the government? Shouldn’t BDS use its ties to the African National Congress 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 luxury items like strawberry smoothies or organic cotton T-shirts from Woolworths. Targeting Woolworths is the equivalent of a Kony campaign for the Palestinian cause.
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 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 a 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 corporation, 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 n 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?
Are 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 magazine 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 Desai out of a Virgin Active gym for wearing a T-shirt advocating 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 its 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-SA 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. DM
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