BDS-SA Launched Investigation Into Desai Allegations, Boardmember Says

Update: The BDS-SA board received the findings of the investigation this weekend which cleared Desai of sexual harassment, board member Tisetso Magama said in a statement on May 27.

The investigation found that: “… there is no rational basis in law to take any disciplinary action against Mr Desai. The allegations against Mr Desai premised on all the statements of the complainants, their witness and Mr Jeenah’s interview cannot be sustained and are unfounded.”

BDS-SA will publish the report, which was “critical” of the boards delay in pursuing the allegations, on the findings “soon”.

Boycott Divestment and Sanctions South Africa (BDS-SA) will reportedly launch an independent investigation into the allegations against co-founder Muhammed Desai.


In a statement by Tisetso Magama on behalf of the BDS-SA board on April 3, the Palestinian rights lobby group said the investigation process will begin on April 15.

This statement came a week after The Daily Vox reported that US academic Sang Hea Kil had laid a charge against Desai. Sexual harassment allegations against Desai surfaced following a night out in Melville on March 21 when three women, including Kil, claimed he had sexually harassed them.

“We treat accusations of such very seriously. We do not and will not hesitate to report such to the relevant authorities and, in addition, take appropriate and decisive disciplinary action within the organisation against members who are perpetrators, protectors or promoters,” Magama said in the statement.

The Women’s Legal Centre (WLC) confirmed to The Daily Vox it is representing the complainants through the processes with BDS-SA and the police. A letter has been sent to the BDS board for details of the investigation, and correspondence has been sent to the police in the criminal case.  

“The Women’s Legal Centre advocates for a victim-centred approach to dealing with sexual harassment. A victim-centered approach thus places the victims at the centre of the inquiry. In doing so, it is cognisant of the context within which women come forward to report sexual harassment matters, and the quagmire of scepticism, criticism, stigmatisation and secondary victimisation they face when doing so. It will hold at the centre the interests of those women for whom the process was developed, and against whom the wrong was committed.”

BDS-SA has not responded to queries from The Daily Vox about whether the investigation has been launched. The Daily Vox has also reached out to BDS-SA to talk about the nature of the internal investigation as well as the initial allegations, however the organisation has declined to respond.

The Palestinian lobby group noted in the statement, that Desai denied the allegations and that the case was closed by authorities.

In a personal statement on April 2, Desai said he had been silent about the allegations following advice from his attorney.

The case against Desai was referred to a specialised unit of the SAPS and, following an investigation, the docket was closed on 26 March citing the reason as “false case”. “The allegations made against me are utterly baseless, contrived and defamatory. I, my family, friends and close comrades have had to endure the brunt of these false allegations,” Desai said.

On April 16, Captain M.R. Rathango from the Family Violence, Child Protection and Sexual Offences department confirmed to The Daily Vox that the docket had been closed. He said that touching is not considered an offence and that the police could not proceed with the case.

Sexual harassment is considered acriminal offence, however there are certain rules within the law which convey whether an action is considered harassment or not.  

Desai said he is committed to following processes of the internal investigation. “I remain committed to abide by the outcome of any/all relevant processes and action that my employer deems necessary with regard to myself and/or anyone else in the organisation when there are any complaints or allegations that its ethos and objectives have been violated,” he said in a personal statement.

Organisations and individuals concerned about BDS-SA’s handling of the allegations

A statement was released on April 8 by organisations and individuals in their personal capacity who are concerned about the way that the BDS-SA has handled the allegations.

The statement raised questions around the terms of reference of the investigation and independence mechanisms which were not clarified by BDS-SA.

The Palestine Solidarity Committee (Johannesburg), Wits Palestine Solidarity Committee, UCT Palestine Solidarity Forum, and Muslims Students Association Union endorsed the statement.

“We call on organisations with a commitment to Palestinian solidarity and gender justice to actively distance themselves from the position adopted by BDS-SA in response to the complainsts. We are in solidarity with Professor Kil and colleagues in their call for accountability.”  

In a statement released on April 4, the Centre for the Advancement of Non-Racialism and Democracy (Canrad) distanced itself from the way BDS-SA responded to the sexual harassment allegations levelled against Desai. It specifically distanced itself from the statement BDS-SA released on March 27, saying Canrad actively opposes all forms of violence again women and gender-nonconforming persons.

“As the host of an annual dialogue in support of the Palestinian cause since 2011, we believe in the indivisibility of struggles. That is, we believe that the struggle for women’s human rights are not inferior to the struggle for Palestinian freedom. BDS-SA must therefore ensure that due process is followed in this case, both for the sake of the war against gender-based violence and of the Palestinian cause in South Africa,” the statement reads.

About the statement that BDS-SA is to launch an investigation into the allegations Canrad said to The Daily Vox: “We await details of the investigation and hope that there will be full transparency as to the process and people involved.”

Desai still makes public appearances for BDS-SA

On April 6, Desai appeared in several BDS-SA social media posts during a meeting in Zambia with former Zambian president Kenneth Kaunda. This appearance came three days after the BDS-SA statement that claimed an intent to launch the independent investigation into Desai.

During a March 23 meeting between the board, Desai, and the complaints, the complainants laid out several demands. One of these demands were for an inquiry into the allegations against Desai. The other demands include an unconditional apology from Desai, and that he be suspended for the duration of the investigation, and prevented from speaking publicly about Palestinian issues during that time.

Authors note: The headline of this story has been changed. Previous headline read: “BDS-SA To Reportedly Launch Investigation Into Desai Allegations”

Featured image by Fatima Moosa