Virgin Active’s decision to forcibly remove pro-Palestine activist Muhammed Desai for wearing a T-shirt with a political slogan last week is an affront to our constitutionally enshrined freedom of expression. The usual tiresome attempts to conflate criticism of the state of Israel and its racist policies with anti-Semitism say a lot more about the hollowness of Israeli hasbara than anything else. And Desai’s detractors are only wasting their breath in their desperate attempts to depict his actions as constituting advocacy of hatred or incitement – two forms of expression that are not protected by the Constitution.
The events of last week threw up another weary example of Israel’s defenders’ flustered attempts to suppress legitimate criticism of Israel. With their usual blind indignation that knows no regard for free expression, these everyday apologists for 21st century apartheid pushed management at Virgin Active’s Old Eds gym to kick out pro-Palestine activist Muhammed Desai for wearing a political T-shirt. By simply wearing a T-shirt which read “In solidarity with the Palestinians, against Israeli apartheid’,’ Desai was in breach of no law, nor, for that matter, was he even in breach of the gym’s own dress code.
But this is what we have come to expect from the Zionist right, who are so insecure in the sinking legitimacy of their cause that the mere presence of a political slogan on a T-shirt – a rather temperate one at that – is enough to cause such breathless hysteria. Worse still, we all too often see institutions and people in positions of influence folding in the face of the bullying tactics of pro-Israel hardliners.
Virgin Active SA has since offered a disingenuous apology, claiming to have taken “a sequence of understandable decisions in a very difficult, complex, fast-evolving and volatile situation”, but conveniently failing to acknowledge that management called Desai prior to the incident to warn him against wearing a Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions South Africa (BDS-SA) T-shirt to the gym.
What happened last week is hardly exceptional. I am reminded of the decision by the Labia Theatre’s management to renege on an agreement to screen a highly acclaimed documentary on the plight of the Palestinian people. After initially agreeing in 2012 to a screening of Roadmap to Apartheid, the Labia made a sudden about turn and refused to show the film. Why? Because of pressure from some of the theatre’s more politically blinkered patrons, who prefer that the inconvenient truths of the regime for which they shill be kept out of polite society.
The Right2Know Campaign then intervened in the matter, brokering an agreement between the theatre and the Palestine Solidarity Campaign. The screening would go ahead and the Zionist lobby and its constituency would be invited and given the chance to participate in a panel discussion on the film. But just days before the screening was due to take place the South African Zionist Federation got cold feet and pulled out. The theatre, shamelessly taking its cue from the Zionist Federation, then cancelled the event.
The federation’s decision to pull out of the event was one thing; barbarous wars against a desperate, besieged population and nearly half a century of illegal occupation with no end in sight make any reasoned defence of Israel’s actions increasingly untenable. So it came as no surprise. But it was quite another thing for the theatre to derail the entire event and ignore an agreement just because the federation refused to play ball.
Here’s another telling episode. Last year, BDS-SA and its legal team, Jason Brickhill and attorneys from the Legal Resources Centre, won a precedent-setting legal battle where freedom of expression was at stake. The case related to a series of billboards, sponsored by BDS-SA in 2012, which showed a sequence of maps depicting Palestine shrinking under an expanding military occupation. There was nothing inflammatory, just a factual representation of a brutal and illegal occupation, but enough for the Zionist lobby to force the advertising company, Continental Media, to take down the billboard adverts without prior notification or explanation. The South African Zionist Federation and the South African Jewish Board of Deputies claimed credit for the removal of the ads.
But in May 2014, the South Gauteng High Court declared that Continental Media’s breach of agreement by removing of the billboards was “unlawful and unconstitutional” and an undue violation of free expression. The court ordered that the billboards be reinstalled and that costs be paid by Continental Media and the respondents.
Given the recent attacks on free expression by Israel’s apologists, what happened last week at the Old Eds gym should hardly come as a surprise. Virgin Active’s cowardly decision to forcibly remove Desai, and its even more cowardly response to the incident, echoes Continental Media and the Labia Theatre and is an affront to our constitutionally enshrined freedom of expression.
The usual tiresome attempts to conflate criticism of the state of Israel and its racist policies with anti-Semitism say a lot more about the hollowness of Israeli hasbara than anything else. And Desai’s detractors are only wasting their breath in their desperate attempts to depict his actions as constituting advocacy of hatred or incitement – two forms of expression that are not protected by the Constitution. Unless, of course, campaigning for an end to a racist and illegal occupation through peaceful means – the same means that were successfully employed against apartheid South Africa – can by some fantastical twist of the imagination be construed as advocating hatred or incitement. Even the most reactionary judge in South Africa could not in good conscience concede to such facile claims, not least because of our own long history of struggle against racial oppression.
But some would argue that the gym was within its rights to kick out Desai, even if it did violate his freedom of expression, because it is a privately owned establishment with the right of admission reserved. This, however, reflects a profound misunderstanding of the nature of the law.
Simply put, property owners have responsibilities and are not at liberty to do whatever they wish with their properties. As constitutional expert Pierre de Vos explains very clearly, the rights to private property and free association are not absolute and must be compliant with the Constitution and weighed up against other human rights, including provisions against discrimination. This is especially so where property is used to offer a public service. In a country like South Africa, where a history of racial dispossession has left a legacy of distorted and hugely unequal property and power relations, there is a particularly strong need for measures to prevent private discrimination, and to ensure that marginalised and dissenting voices are not silenced by exclusion.
While there is nothing in the law to prevent a property owner inviting only white friends to his private party, this is not the case where business is concerned. The law rightfully protects the public from harmful discrimination including discrimination based on belief and conscience, which is expressly prohibited in terms of Article 9(4) of the Bill of Rights.
And yet a number of Virgin Active patrons who can see no wrong in a vicious military occupation, and who are riled by calls for basic human freedoms for the Palestinians, forced management to single out Desai and bar his entry to the gym. This happened despite Desai being a paid-up member and despite the offending slogan on his T-shirt being constitutionally protected expression. The whole episode, like the Labia Theatre and Continental Media cases, is a damning indictment on Israel’s hardcore devotees and their fear of legitimate free expression. DM
Micah Reddy is the national coordinator for media freedom and diversity at the Right2Know Campaign. He holds a Masters Degree in African Studies from Oxford University and a Bachelor of Arts from the University of the Witwatersrand, and until recently was managing editor at the Yemen Times in Sana’a. He has also worked as a freelance journalist and editor in Cairo and Jerusalem. @RedMicah
Micah Reddy is the national co-ordinator for media freedom and diversity at the Right2Know Campaign. He holds a Masters in African Studies from Oxford University and a BA from Wits, and until recently was managing editor at the Yemen Times in Sanaa. He has also worked as a freelance journalist and editor in Cairo and Jerusalem. @RedMicah.