Like active virgins, BDS-SA’s activism is an oxymoron


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.

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 they made the decision to expel Desai. Is it only one particular kind of t-shirt that gets you booted out of one of their clubs? I look forward to their 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 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 a 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 & 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 fund raiser 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 government? Shouldn’t BDS use its ties to the ANC 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 a luxury item 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 Muhammad 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 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 corporate, 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 & Pay supermarkets comes to town.

Deficient politics

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?

Is 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 mag 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 out of Desai from the Virgin Active for wearing a t-shirt advocating for 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 their 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-South Africa 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.

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

Read our editorial policy on the Israel-Palestine conflict

Azad Essa is an exec. editor at The Daily Vox. Follow him on Twitter: @azadessa

– Featured image by Ihsaan Haffejee


  1. May be a good idea for Azad and Muhammed to meet up and chat. Life, activism and journalism have a lot to do with learning about the other. Perceptions are one thing. Interactions are the real thing.

  2. Pointless criticism ‘a little more than a joke’. While the idea of a broader social struggle is great, the reality is that campaigns like BDS are awareness name and shame campaigns. Journalists like yourselves are meant to investigate and inform the public of the nefarious relationships of capital with Zionist state. That criticism of upper middle class vanity could be turned on this very news site too!

    • Hello Goolam, thanks for the comments. 1) i’m not so sure what you are saying about bds being an awareness campaign/shame campaign. Are you saying that when they fail at their work, we shouldn’t raise question their actions? 2) yes, journalists are meant to show the collusion of capital and Zionism. but the job doesn’t stop there. 3) yes, you can criticize the site, by all means, and please do so, this is how it works. at the same time, do note that currently: we have 1 out of the 18 stories on the home page right now related to indian south africans (though, don’t assume who reads what content, because you would be surprised)

  3. Pointless criticism ‘a little more than a joke’. While the idea of a broader social struggle is great, the reality is that campaigns like BDS are awareness name and shame campaigns. Journalists like yourselves are meant to investigate and inform the public of the nefarious relationships of capital with Zionist state. That criticism of upper middle class vanity could be turned on this very news site too! I see a lot of average Indian oriented news in a publication pretending to give a voice to the Masses.

  4. ‘lets be clear’ – that its not very clear why you have diluted your stance against Virgin Active for its obvious violation of freedom of speech by this odd criticism of Desai for being at the gym in the first place. Should we now criticize every journalist advocating for social quality, elimination of hunger etc every time they have a cappuccino which the masses cannot afford? Perhaps we should…but not sure why you brought this up now – makes your piece…unclear.

    • How is it a diluted stance? where does it suggest that virgin shouldn’t be blasted for what happened? Please explain. and no, having an expensive sandwich doesn’t mean you can’t talk about hunger. its not nice, but that’s a fallacious argument. we are talking about a public activist organizing against occupation but doing it in haphazard manner, that is not moving the story forward. him being kicked out of virgin active is precisely the extent of the activism. (oh, they didn’t like my t-shirt) BUT if they did allow him in with his T-shirt what would he activism achieve anyway? It’s fluff. Its the same as liking a post for saving starving black children on facebook.

  5. Important points made by the Daily Vox editor, but one thinks there’s a level of confusion or disjuncture. The BDS campaign is a solidarity campaign, and not the same as say South Africans struggling against apartheid. It’s main aim is to raise awareness of the plight of the Palestinian people for freedom and to show solidarity for their struggle. It is the Palestinian’s struggle, never the BDS’ one.

  6. As a regular member of Old Eds, I have often seen Desai sporting his BDS gear without any hassles or attention. It seems that a personal spat between him and the complainant/”offended pro-Israel gym member has now spiralled into this mess.

    How convenient that his buddy, Yusuf Omar was there to film and edit everything.

    His t-shirt spat and vendetta against Woolies is doing nothing constructive for the BDS movement or the plight of the Palestininians.

    During apartheid, consumers didn’t boycott entire supermarkets but certain products. Surely if people boycotted the Israeli goods in Woolies instead of the whole store, it would be more efffective? Woolworths, from a business perspective would not keep stock that does not sell.

    I agree with the writer that worse offenders like Dischem, Pick ‘n Pay and Cape Union Mart should be targeted, their CEO’s are openly Zionist.

  7. Israel is imploding , you say? this is something I heard 35 years ago from muslims I worked with. you people are living in a fantasy world. if anyone is imploding it is the arab states in the region. Israel will develop and get much more powerful in all ways. we will just hear you people babble away your nonsense.!!

  8. Bds calling out woolies in a name and shame campaign to support palestine . Now you calling out md in a name and shame campaign to support a campaign against the bds for “not doing their job properly” ? Its tacky and immature quite honestly , perhaps they are doing the best they can , the best they know how … Perhaps you should join the movement and advocate change if you have any sincere interest in human rights. Otherwise you really just another finger pointing , with 4 pointing back at yourself. MD has not proclaimed himself to be jesus with the 2nd coming… He is a human being , perhaps not hitting bulls eye , but the intention is honourable … What exactly are your intentions? If this was your first attempt at righting the wrong you see. Journalism like yours is purely self serving. Since you brought all of the above up, i have to wonder where you are buying your groceries ? which medical aid do you keep?

  9. azad essa I am definitely not grumpy , never have been and never will be. first of all I own woolworths shares , and look what your boycott has done. .the price is sky high without you. secondly, as I said , you and your crew live in a fantasy world, which I have experienced for 35 yrs. the states being literally destroyed are the arab states. millions have fled, probably never to return, or killed by their own people. and not a word from you guys. so, if you think Israel is about to implode, then jog on , my friend , jog on.

  10. no, azad , I did not misread the piece. I think it can mean anything. as for bds, I have family members and friends in that organisation. also in every anti Israel organisation you will find them. bds, nc4p, and all the others , there you will find them. the same crowd. also in the anc , communist party, there they are. always trying to get their names in the paper , just like desai. as for me encouraging you to boycott woollies, wow!! sure you can do without them?

  11. I live in Canada and the Anti-apartheid activists with limited resources chose a few targets n the 80’s . Boycotting South African wine contributed to increasing the awareness of apartheid in South Africa to Canada. BDS is South Africa is wise in focussing on few issues and not over extending themselves. If there is any hope of bringing justice to Palestinians peacefully it is the BDS movement. The Zionists all over the world are extremely worried about the impact of BDS which will only increase with time. Israel as a racist ethnic cleansing “Jews only” country is living on borrowed time.

  12. moosa, you use plenty Israeli products. your cell phone, computer, medical equipment , medicines, all have Israeli products developed, in them. many more I cannot mention here now. Israel , known as the worlds startup nation, sells goods all over the world. as far as the arab world, even some in iran!! woollies, a company which buys a tiny amount of their produce ftom Israel, a fraction of Israeli goods imported into sa. so why woollies, maybe because it was always in the past seen as a “jewish business”? anyway , the company is performing very well, so go out and buy a couple of shares, and stop pissing.


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