UPDATED: A t-shirt gets you kicked out of a Virgin Active?

Muhammed Desai, the national co-ordinator of the South African chapter of the Boycott Divestment and Sanctions lobby against Israel, was forcibly removed from the Old Eds branch of Virgin Active in northern Johannesburg on Wednesday evening. Desai’s t-shirt was reportedly deemed politically inflammatory. The t-shirt, from the Young Communist League’s “4th National Congress” at the University of Western Cape last year reads, “From the coast of Cape Town to the coast of Gaza in solidarity with Palestinians against Israeli Apartheid”.

Desai says he was told ahead of his visit to the club on Wednesday evening that he would not be allowed to wear “BDS” t-shirts.

“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,” he said.

After insisting that he is able to take care of his own safety, he says he received a call from a regional manager. “Mr Jason Gripper said that if I tried to enter a Virgin Active club in the country (while) wearing a BDS t-shirt, that I will be removed and will be denied access from the gym.”

Desai says Virgin Active refused to send him these instructions in writing, and he then proceeded to the gym that evening.

“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.”

At this point, Desai says, another gym member, a man who has now been identified as Howard Hersh, said that aggrieved gym members “had been guaranteed by the highest levels of the company that BDS t-shirts won’t be allowed to be worn in the gym”.

According to a statement released by Virgin Active on Thursday, “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.”

Virgin Active insists that “no legal item of clothing is banned from its clubs”.


Of course, Twitter and Facebook erupted.

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-With additional reporting by Firdaus Khan.