The Daily Vox’s executive editor AZAD ESSA responds to comments about his recent column concerning the Virgin Active/BDS-SA t-shirt saga.
Weâ€™ve been inundated with questions, comments and complaints since we published the column “Like active virgins, BDS activism is an oxymoronâ€ last week. Some said it felt like a personal attack on Desai, others said the timing was off, still others said it demanded an unrealistic standard of ethics from activists. And then there were those who said Israel was not imploding and that moves to boycott the country didn’t make sense anyway.
We believe in community at The Daily Vox. Constructive criticism contributes to our understanding of the issues we cover, and it’s also useful to keep us in check, and so we’re grateful for these comments. I’d like to take a few minutes to respond.
The timing of the piece
The white privilege on display in the incident reminded us of the coterie of people who wield considerable influence over the way many corporates operate, and some critics said the time was nigh for a take-down of the racist nature of the incident. They believe we should have soaked the up the incident, dug our nails into the nature of white capital still telling brown and black folk how to behave, and then, maybe then, hauled out the big guns over the shortfalls of BDS-SA’s campaign strategies.
I did not attempt to dismiss the racism that informed the Old Eds incident, neither did I seek to absolve Virgin Active of any sense of accountability over its subsequent handling of the drama. The act of racism deserved to be understood in itself, and I concede the column could have waited a few more days.
Personal attack on Desai
For the record, I don’t know Desai. I hold him in the same regard as anyone in politics (with a healthy dose of suspicion). As the national co-ordinator of an organisation promoting a cause I believe in, and as the leader of a non-profit organisation, he may not be accountable to the public or indeed, to me. He is however accountable to the cause. By taking BDS-SA t-shirts to Virgin Active and making it part of the of the conversation, Desai put himself at the centre of the debate. But we didn’t discuss motives, or whether the incident was staged, as others did. We went to the heart of the matter i.e. what did it tell us about BDS-SA?
Besides, we attack leaders of all types all the time, for their public actions. They lead, we follow, struggle or repel. Should our attachment to a particular cause blind us to the shortfalls of its leadership? There were those who refused to, for instance, criticise presidents Mandela or Mbeki during the late 90s/early 2000s for fear it would undermine the ANC at a crucial juncture of this democracy. Have we not learned that keeping mum to protect someone or something leads to debilitating inaction?
Most of the arguments defending Desai have barely engaged with the criticism levelled at him or at BDS-SA. Desai the individual barely matters; his responsibilities as a leader of a movement committed to social justice, do.
We demand a better example from BDS-SA because we need better social movements.
Making a strawman out of Desai jogging beside big money
One of the most lucid criticisms levelled against the column is the contention that I am demanding an unrealistic level of commitment from activists. And while I accept that there is some validity in this argument, I donâ€™t think it is relevant here.
The fact that a leader of BDS-SA was kicked out of a big name fitness club – or what Iâ€™d like to call, the altar of white capitalism – while wearing a t-shirt calling for the boycott of apartheid Israel requires some reflection from all of us.
Palestinian solidarity, like any other cause, does not exist in a bubble. It is deeply rooted in issues of global, socio-economic justice. Israel is the story of colonialism that never went away. So bullying an aunty pushing a trolley full of Woolworths groceries in Sandton means little when you are pounding a treadmill at a gym run by people who are influential at Woolworths.
If you think the link is still vague, consider this: the current chairman for Virgin Active, Simon Susman, is the very person who set up Woolworths’ Foods and is a non-executive of Woolworths. Susman’s father was also the managing director of Woolworths. Susman’s grand uncle was the son of the co-founder of Marks & Spencer, of which Woolworths was a sister company until a few years ago.
I must admit I had no idea that the linkages were so direct: but it does makes you wonder if Desai’s move was actually a stroke of genius – for it illustrates how deeply rooted and interconnected white capital remains in South Africa.
And in case it is still not clear, white capital in South Africa is the fruit of the colonialism and apartheid that also never really went away. Yes, some entanglement with white capital is inevitable for all of us – such is the reality of living here in South Africa or elsewhere.
But the leaders of an organisation advocating for the boycott of Israel as an Apartheid state, should at least be conscious of the weaknesses these connections pose to their own campaigns.
The Virgin Active incident illuminated the flaws of BDS-SAâ€™s Woolworths boycott. If you still don’t want to accept that it’s spurious, chances are you at least now know that it’s rather shallow.
A kiss and make-out session with BDS-SA
If BDS-SA want to meet and help us understand their position, we are available to talk. They have a direct line to our staff and they have also been offered right of reply. We are being continuously asked to meet with Desai, as if the shortfalls of their campaign would suddenly make sense if we were to connect IRL. It would be like the Mac Maharaj of old, asking us to meet with President Jacob Zuma to better understand what happened at Nkandla. What is it that will be better communicated in person that cannot be communicated in their mass communications? Do they need a better communication team?
We are all for talking, but it doesn’t mean we will end up in compromising positions.
Finally, is Israel imploding?
To the uninformed, Israel is the shining light surrounded by a morass of marauding Arabs. They’re partly right of course, in the same way apartheid South Africa was once also thought to represent civilisation on the African continent.
Israel is in crisis, much as Apartheid South Africa was in crisis in the mid 1980s. In 1987, Margaret Thatcher told a press conference â€œA considerable number of the ANC leaders are communists â€¦ When the ANC says that they will target British companies, this shows what a typical terrorist organisation it is. I fought terrorism all my life â€¦ I will have nothing to do with any organisation that practises violence. I have never seen anyone from ANC or the PLO or the IRA and would not do so.â€
Four years later, Mandela was released, and on his way to becoming president. It doesn’t mean the crisis in Israel-Palestine will end in a few years, but yesterday’s ‘terrorists’ are today’s ‘allies’ and Israel is as untenable as they come. Nothing elucidates this point more then the recent Iran nuclear deal, which signals the beginning of a new era in the region. By all accounts, Israel has become a major embarrassment to US interests in the Middle East. Outward-looking Israelis know that the status quo – being perennially at warÂ -Â is also unsustainable. Israel runs on guilt; the Holocaust is used to justify crimes against humanity. Israeli settler attacks on Palestinians, ongoing racism towardsÂ African migrants or non-European Jews indicate that the Israeli state apparatus will soon be forced to admit some level of engagement that is aimed at bringing a more long lasting solution. Israel is in trouble.