Pro-Palestinian sympathises have been encouraged to continue donning attire that highlights the “legitimate struggle” of the Palestinian people, amidst an uproar over Virgin Active’s decision to eject a well-known activist from its gym facility in Houghton, Johannesburg. Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) national coordinator, Muhammed Desai was forcibly removed from the Old Eds branch of Virgin Active for wearing a shirt from the Young Communist League of South Africa’s (YCLSA) 4th national congress, which featured the BDS logo and a quote in support of those in the blockade-hit Gaza Strip.
The incident has sparked substantial uproar amongst those who deem the move to be in contradiction of Desai’s freedom of expression, leading the National Coalition for Palestine (NC4P) to call for increased activism from the broader public. Many have threatened to wear similar apparel to gyms in support of the prominent BDS activist.
NC4P representative, Suraya Dadoo said the incident need not be viewed as isolated, as such instances of stifling debate on Israeli policies was becoming more commonplace. But whilst this was the case, she said such matters were also yielding much support amongst those not ordinarily involved in pro-Palestinian activism.
“The issue is also in the way the matter was handled, specifically by the Virgin Active branch itself. They haven’t really understood the full implications (of their actions),” she said.
Dadoo highlighted that the incident was attracting global media attention as well, including from agencies like Al Jazeera Plus.
The branch in question is based in an area with a reported high percentage of Jewish residents, raising questions as to whether Desai may have intentionally sought to provoke a response. But Dadoo stressed that even if the gym was being frequented by a sizable number of Zionist supporters, this was not any reason to try and limit a fellow member’s freedom of expression.
“As Muhammed has said on various platforms, he constantly sees IDF gear being worn to the gym. He found that particularly offensive yet he didn’t complain to management because he was simply accepting their right to freedom of expression, as guaranteed in the constitution,” she explained.
Virgin Active has since released a statement assuring that it is not in the business of limiting free speech to any individual, and further that it has no written policy denying members the right to wear the apparel of their choosing. But Dadoo brushed off the company’s statement as one riddled with contradictions.
“As you say it is about free speech, but yet the gym are going to ask certain people to tone down and be tolerant of each other,” she said.
Desai is reported to have already met with high ranking management of Virgin Active, and is now awaiting a full statement and proposed course of action from the gym. On Friday, Desai said he would pursue the matter further with the SA Human Rights Commission and the Equality Court. VOC (Mubeen Banderker)