An Open Letter to the Board of BDS-SA On The Muhammad Desai Investigation


We as individuals, committed to:

  • Justice for Palestine;
  • An indivisible, intersectional approach to justice;
  • Victim-centered approaches to gender-based violence (GBV), and 
  • The creation of egalitarian societies; 

categorically reject the patently flawed, and unambiguously biased report by Advocate Smanga Sethene that clears Muhammad Desai, director of BDS-SA of sexual harassment. If anything, the report, despite its bizarre and incongruous conclusions, exposes a set of behaviours and events that ironically emphasises precisely how predatory and harassing Desai’s behavior was during the evening in question. 

We note our overall profound disappointment at the approach of the BDS- SA board regarding these serious allegations of sexual harassment against Desai. In our view the Board failed on several counts: to suspend Desai immediately after the allegations came to light; to engage in a transparent and consultative process regarding the establishment of the investigation; its unquestioning acceptance of a plainly defective and prejudiced report that is insulting to women generally, and more particularly victims of GBV and sexual harassment. 

A patently clear example of sexism in the report is Advocate Sethene questioning whether the victim was in fact being “flirtatious” or “inviting” when she explicitly tells Desai she is not interested in his sexual overtures. We also note allegations that some members of the board pressured a witness to change his statement in favour of Desai. It seems more than apparent that the investigation was designed specifically to exonerate Desai rather than revealing the truth and providing justice to the victims. 

Even a cursory reading of Advocate Sethene’s report reveals its blatant prejudices. We find repulsive some of the classical victim-blaming comments made by Sethene in indemnifying Desai. Furthermore, we find his conclusions at variance with the evidence presented in his own report. The aspersions cast against respected and mature academics is, to say the least, disconcerting. We also find the Advocate’s process deeply flawed in that while it unnecessarily interviewed the owner of the establishment it failed to interview crucial witnesses and failed to inform or engage the legal representatives of the victims regarding the process and terms of reference of the investigation. 

If the experience of these visiting academics is not a solitary episode, but a pattern of misogynistic behavior then the BDS-SA Board has a responsibility to determine this and act accordingly. Such pattern of behavior puts young male and female activists at risk and could result in bright, enthusiastic and talented activists deserting the cause which BDS-SA claims to be advocating for. 

Gender-based violence (GBV) and sexual harassment is deeply rooted in gender inequality and continues to be one of the most notable human rights violations within all societies. Justice is indivisible and the violation of women’s bodily integrity and dignity should not be tolerated and enabled by the board of BDS-SA. The report and the behavior of the BDS-SA board suggests precisely such enabling of, and complicity in patriarchal behavior. Desai’s behavior should find no space or tolerance in the Palestine solidarity movement. 

If the board in its entirety or certain members on the board are implicated in protecting Desai during this shameful episode, then we urge the board to disband or the complicit members to resign. 

Ultimately if BDS-SA wants to retain any semblance of credibility, it must as a minimum suspend Desai and institute an independent, victim-centred process that is inclusive and transparent. A process that may seek to include the report of Advocate Sethene. Failure to do so will predictably, and sadly result in the demise of BDS-SA and do serious harm not only to the reputations of those who serve on its board, but also to the cause for justice in Palestine. 


Dr Shuaib Manjra. Open Shuhada Street 

Professor Rashida Manjoo. Law faculty, UCT Professor 

Ashraf Kagee. Department of Psychology, University of Stellenbosch 

Professor Sa’diyya Shaikh. Department of Religious Studies, UCT 

Professor Mohamed Jeebhay. School of Public Health, UCT 

Professor Abdulkader Tayob. Department of Religious Studies, UCT 

Dr Fatima Seedat. Gender Studies, UCT 

Professor Amanda Gouws. Department of Political Science, (SARChI Chair in Gender Politics), Stellenbosch University 

Professor Sarojini Nadar. Director: Desmond Tutu Centre for Religion and Social Justice, UWC

Professor Shamil Jeppie. Historical Studies, UCT 

Professor Juliana Claassens. Theology Faculty, Stellenbosch University 

Mr Ashraf Mohamed. Human Rights Lawyer 

Ms Nuraan Osman. Ihata Shelter for Abused Women and Children 

Ms Aneesa Moosa. Occupational Therapist 

Ms Shabnam Palesa Mohamed. Stand Up! Foundation. 

Ms Laura Phillips. PhD student NYU. 

Dr. Laila Suleman. Physician/Pulmonologist 

Mr Faizal Dawjee. Independent Media Consultant 

Mr Ahmed Vawda. Educational Consultant. 

Mr Mohammad Groenewald. Muslim Youth Movement 

Mr Thandile Kona. Muslim Youth Movement 

Ms Fatima Shabodien. Muslim feminist activist 

Mr Abdul-Aleem Somers 

Ms Itrath Syed. PhD Candidate and Lecturer, Simon Fraser University, Canada 

Dr Ahmed Manjra. Paediatrician 

Ms Farhana Ismail. Attorney 

Ms Nafisa Patel. PhD student, Department of Religious Studies, UCT 

Dr Koni Benson. Department of History, University of the Western Cape 

Dr Ruchi Chaturvedi. Department of Sociology, UCT. 

Ihsaan Bassier. PhD student University of Massachusetts, Amherst 

Ms Shafieka Moos. Rape Crisis Cape Town Social Worker 

Yaliwe Clarke. Interim Director and Lecturer (Gender Studies), African Gender Institute, UCT 

Mr Zaid Manjra Yumnah Richards. Forensic Analyst, SAPS Forensic Science Laboratory 

Dr Lee Scharnick-Udemans. Desmond Tutu Centre for Religion and Social Justice, UWC. 

Dr Jonathan Jodamus, Department of Religion and Theology, UWC 

Khadeeja Bassier 

Mujahid Osman. MA. Graduate, Peace Studies, University of Notre Dame 

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policies of The Daily Vox.

Editor’s note: An earlier version of this article erroneously designated Itrath Syed as a “Mr”.

Featured image by Fatima Moosa