Virgin Active South Africa have apologised to Muhammad Desai for his forced removal from its Houghton branch on Wednesday evening. In a statement issued today, the gym chain said it has thoroughly “investigated the decisions” it took which led to Desai being kicked out of the gym. Following pressure from certain gym members, Desai was informed that he could not wear a pro-Palestinian t-shirt or any other politicised slogan to the gym.
“We have thoroughly investigated the decisions we took, and the reasons behind them, which ultimately led to a member, Mr Desai, being informed that he could not enter the gym wearing a particular T-shirt. This process included a very senior team flying immediately to Johannesburg to personally meet the member concerned,” Ross Faragher-Thomas, Virgin Active managing director.
“What emerges is that we took a sequence of understandable decisions in a very difficult, complex, fast evolving and volatile situation of the kind we have never had to face before. Our staff took these decisions with the best intent in terms of balancing the well-being of all our club members with the critical value of freedom of speech.”
Following a meeting with the company’s management on Thursday evening, it appeared as though the parties disagreed on the events which lead to Desai’s removal. The company was of the view that Desai was not removed for the contents on his t-shirt, but rather for displaying an “aggressive” attitude, which upset certain members.
Desai said he was disappointed with the outcome of the meeting and on Friday morning, vowed that he would take the matter up with the SA Human Rights Commission and Equality Court.
By Friday afternoon, the company concluded that the decision to inform Desai that he could not wear the T-shirt in the club was “wrong”.
“He, and any other member, is entitled to wear that T-shirt, and any other legal item of clothing, at our health clubs.
“We regret the incident and have learnt a lot from it. We are reviewing our procedures as a result to find more appropriate ways to manage any tensions which might arise in what is meant to be a positive space for members’ fitness and wellness. We apologise to Mr. Desai for denying him entry to the health club on these grounds.”
Because brands are not bound by freedom of speech policies as dictated by the country’s constitution, Virgin Active would have the right to reserve admission to any of its facilities, according to a branding expert. Whilst the incident has sparked debate on whether his removal constitutes a violation of freedom of speech and expression, Andrew Mckenzie, managing director at Boomtown Strategic Brand Agency said Virgin Active would likely have featured a ‘Right of Admission Reserved’ sign at the entrance to the facility in question. This meant that management would have a say in whether any individual, regardless of them being a member or not, would be denied entry to the building.
However because the “brand dialogue process” has been subject to change as a result of the emergence of social media, he said many companies were no longer in control of how their brand was being perceived amongst the broader public.
“The negative publicity generated by something like this for a brand like Virgin Active is tremendous. Fundamentally there is a PR nightmare they are going to have to contend with, and it will be interesting to see how they are going to handle it,” he stated.
In such instances he recommended brands adopt a certain degree of neutrality, particular in relation to political issues. Furthermore, he said companies need show tolerance to the views of all members and consumers.
“Brand neutrality is vitally important when it comes to consumer facing brands like Virgin Active. They’ve got a myriad of people from all walks of life using their facilities, and how do you choose who can and can’t enter your establishment based on their preferences?” he questioned.
The incident also brought forth questions as to whether Virgin Active would enforce a ‘blanket policy’ on all clothing that could be offensive to other gym users. Mckenzie said this highlighted a need for conversation around such branding issues.
“I think South Africans need to adjust to tolerance in a diverse country like ours. South Africa is a country with a myriad of cultures and dynamics associated with it, and unless we start exercising some sort of tolerance around things like this, we are never going to progress as a democracy,” he said. VOC (Mubeen Banderker)