Pro-Palestinian activist Muhammed Desai was thrown out of a Virgin Active gym on Wednesday, for the free-speech-protected act ofÂ 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 WednesdayÂ evening, Muhammed Desai, national co-ordinator for theÂ Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions campaign in South Africa (BDS-SA
Journalist Yusuf Omar captured the aftermath of the incident on video,Â and before long, Virgin Active was trending across social networks inÂ South Africa. The Virgin Active chain has come under attack forÂ quelling “freedom of speech”, as many demand an explanation for theÂ incident.
Virgin Active must explain how they made the decision to expel Desai.Â Is it only one particular kind of t-shirt that gets you booted out ofÂ one of their clubs? I look forward to their explanation. IfÂ immediate public sentiment is to be believed, many will be cancellingÂ their club membership today if Virgin doesn’t conjure up satiableÂ 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 tooÂ must be accountable.
The worldwide BDS movement is an important component of the activismÂ surrounding Palestinian solidarity. Boycotts, material or symbolic,Â can have far-reaching consequences if part of a greaterÂ political movement. Israel is imploding; a highly functional,Â efficient BDS will play a crucial role in disabling this apartheidÂ state.
But as it stands right now, the organised South African chapter of theÂ global BDS movement is a little more than a joke.
Magic number three
Around a year ago, BDS-SA made Woolworths the primary object ofÂ their national campaign. The all-in-one lazy manâ€™s dream world wasÂ targeted notÂ for supplying mass sums of money to the apartheid state, but forÂ stocking three Israeli itemsÂ – pomegranates, figs and pretzels.
To be sure, Woolworths should remove these items from its list ofÂ goods. But, when compared to other South African companies, includingÂ Pick & Pay and Checkers, Woolworthsâ€™ relationship with Israel seems ratherÂ trivial.
Consider this: in June, Philip Krawitz, the founder and owner of the excellent outdoor chain CapeÂ Union MartÂ was honoured for his contribution to Israel. Krawitz reportedly spearheaded the Cape TownÂ Jewish communityâ€™s fundraisingÂ efforts during Israel’s invasion of Gaza last year, which killed 2,200Â Palestinians and 71 Israelis.Â According to the Jewish Report, Cape Town was the biggest fund raiser for IsraelÂ 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 companyÂ G4S, which provides equipment and services to Israeli prisons, where thousands of Palestinians andÂ Israeli Arabs are held without charge?Â South African banks use G4S. Why not specifically organise a boycottÂ against them? Or, how about the fact that G4S runs prisons in SouthÂ Africa, at the behest of government? Shouldnâ€™t BDS use its ties to theÂ ANC structures to lobby against G4S?
The BDS campaign against Woolworths is little more than a shoutingÂ match that absolves the prickly conscience of their supporters.
In the world of middle-class activism, the decision to targetÂ Woolworths, instead of any others, is about winning political pointsÂ rather making an actual dent on Israel. It is so obscure that there isÂ hardly anything substantially symbolic aboutÂ it either. If Woolworths stops selling Israeli figs, pretzels, andÂ pomegranates, what would it mean?
By its very nature, Woolworths feeds on the guilty conscience of theÂ South African middle class, to splurge while swiping their My SchoolÂ cards. Woolworths gives white guilt an outlet to express its consumerÂ self.
So we are then in a peculiar conundrum.
By targeting Woolworths, BDS-SA looks to double middle class guiltÂ without actually offering an alternative; in other words, theÂ Woolworths boycott is fundamentally flawed because it targets theÂ fickle, the people who want to feel good about themselves whileÂ spending. But most South Africans don’t shop at Woolworths. Many don’tÂ have proper housing or food security. The boycott of Woolworths isÂ exclusionary by nature: it has no chance of becoming universal.
There is nothing radical about boycotting a luxury item likeÂ strawberry smoothies or organic cotton t-shirts from Woolworths.Â TargetingÂ Woolworths is the equivalent of aÂ Kony campaign forÂ the Palestinian cause.
This disconnect of BDS-SA from a project of radical love for theÂ Palestinians, or indeed all marginalised people, is especially evidentÂ by its figurehead Muhammad Desai being kicked out of an upper middle classÂ gym for wearing a t-shirt.
He didn’t get kicked off a Jews-only bus. He wasn’t asked to get off aÂ whites-only bench. He was wearing a t-shirt in an expensiveÂ gym where many ordinaryÂ South Africans are excluded anyway.
When he was told he had to leave because of his t-shirt, he replied:Â “My argument is clear, I am paid up member of this club, and I have aÂ right to be here, and have a right to access the gym; those who areÂ offended at human rights, those are the ones [with] the problem”.
What, you might ask, is the problem with a BDS activist doing hisÂ cardio at a branch of a large, nationwide gym?
Like any other massive corporate, Virgin is a monster player in theÂ gym world in South Africa. With Virgin expanding into small towns andÂ suburbs, it’s hard for any local gym to compete with the monster’sÂ financial infrastructure; the same way corner stores struggle whenÂ Checkers and Pick & Pay supermarkets comes to town.
BDS-SA might be targeting Woolworths, but do they have no stance whenÂ it comes to the collusion of white capital in this country? Virgin isÂ a part of a nefarious system of white ownership and commercialÂ relations that keeps the majority disenfranchised, and keeps theÂ structurally perverse system intact. The question must be asked: WhyÂ is an understanding of systemic oppression and a true commitment toÂ political change so limited in middle-class activist circles?
Is Desai’s politics so deficient that he talks about PalestinianÂ rights by day and then jogs next to a CEO of a JSE-listed company on aÂ 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,Â selective-activism?
Make no mistake, this is not about Desai. It is about the cancerÂ eating its way around the leadership of our trade unions, theÂ communist youth leagues andÂ much of our activism.
Writing in The Con mag late last November, Camalita Naicker arguedÂ that international BDS principles required that solidarity withÂ Palestinians be rooted in the principles of equality, justice andÂ freedom.
“These principles are meant to be rooted in non-racialism, and inÂ solidarity with all people, especially local people who faceÂ 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 fromÂ the Virgin Active for wearing a t-shirt advocating for a boycott ofÂ Israel. We will scream,Â shout, bite and snarl and join the spectacle of outrage currentlyÂ unfurling across South Africa for his right to do so. Virgin Active must know that theirÂ 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, andÂ be categorically rooted in the economic and political struggles ofÂ this country. It would go out of its way to root out anti-SemitismÂ even as it fights Zionism, and would be determined to crack down on anyÂ indiscipline in this regard. It would be open to dissent andÂ dialogueÂ and, crucially, itÂ would not break a sweat in a temple of whiteÂ capital. That too, in a boycott-Israel t-shirt.
Azad Essa is an exec. editor at The Daily Vox. Follow him on Twitter: @azadessa