The board of Boycott Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) South Africa says allegations of sexual harassment against its director Muhammad Desai are “unfounded”. The organisation has concluded an independent investigation into claims made by US academic Sang Hea Kil, who accused Desai of sexually harassing herself and two other women on 2 March this year. The women were visiting Johannesburg to attend a conference on Palestine. Advocate Smanga Sethene from the Johannesburg Bar was appointed to investigate the matter.
According to the statement, 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.”
According to a Daily Vox article, Kil and other international delegates ran into Desai and his colleague at a restaurant in Mellville on Thursday 21 March. During the interaction, she claimed Desai had given her a shoulder massage, which left her feeling uncomfortable.
Kil said she had resisted Desai’s physical advances during their interaction that night, and despite attempts to move outside the restaurant and even switch seats with her friend, he was not getting the signal. They confronted him at a conference organised by the think-tank Afro-Middle East Centre (AMEC).
AMEC director Na’eem Jeenah acted on behalf of the complainants in the matter. He and several of the attendees sent a list of demands to the board of BDS-SA in a letter on 24 March.
Amongst the demands were that Desai gives an urgent and unconditional apology and that he be suspended from his position in the Palestinian solidarity organisation. It was also asked that a commission of inquiry investigate the allegations.
Following the investigation’s outcome, the organisation has shared the outcome of the report with the complainants.
“The Board has, throughout this process, reflected – and continues to reflect – on our internal process of consultation and ways of deepening our commitment to our values in the struggle to create a more just and humane world. This includes reflecting on our own conduct and inadequacies,” said BDS spokesperson Tisetso Magama.
“We thank members of the public, our partner organizations and our supporters for providing us with the space to sensitively, thoroughly and fairly investigate this matter with full consideration for all moral and legal obligations.”
The report has also criticized the board of BDS SA for the delay in dealing with the matter.
“Whenever allegations of sexual harassment are made, irrespective of who is involved, they must be attended to expeditiously without fear or favour. It has taken BDS-SA two months to attend to these serious allegations. The Board of BDS-SA should ensure that urgency in dealing with serious allegations in future must never be compromised. With the passage of time and if the allegations are not dealt with expeditiously, the victim, the alleged perpetrator and the organisation itself, are put in a state of suspended animation until a due process is finalised. This should never happen,” reads an extract of the report.
On Monday, Desai finally broke his silence and said he was considering legal recourse on the matter.
“It has been a difficult time, with considerable reflection on things that I could correct or be doing better, but I am deeply grateful to have been and continue to be surrounded by critical and reflective friends, comrades and family who, while they have been deeply supportive, did not for a moment allow me to escape hard questions,” he said.
“I am humbled to be serving an organization like BDS-SA with its leadership, staff, supporters and partner organizations. I remain as committed as ever to the Palestinian struggle against Israeli Apartheid as part of my larger commitment to progressive internationalism within the context of a comprehensive commitment to create a more just and loving world.”
“With all my limitations, which I continuously seek to decrease – I plod on.” VOC