Public outrage is growing on social media in support of Muhammed Desai, who was booted out of Virgin Active in Houghton on Wednesday evening for wearing a t-shirt in support of Palestine. The activist from the Boycott Divestment and Sanctions movement in South Africa (BDS SA) said he was asked to leave the gym, and when he refused, police was called to the gym to arrest him. Police themselves argued that Desai had not committed any crime. But the gym remained adamant that Desai would not be allowed to enter any Virgin Active gym if he wore a BDS Palestine t-shirt.
“I regularly wear BDS and other pro-Palestine t-shirts to the gym. Yesterday I got a call for the branch manager saying that in the interests of my own safety, I should not wear these kinds of t-shirts to the gym. I explained that I was quite confident of my own safety and that I will be at the gym that evening,” Desai explained.
“I then got a call from the regional manager saying that if I were to try to enter anyone of the Virgin Active clubs in the country wearing these T-shirts, I would be immediately escorted. I asked for the relevant policy or legal decisions stating this and was not given any.”
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‘Silencing pro-Palestine movement’
Desai’s response was that he was a “paid-up member” and would access the gym that evening. When he got to the gym, Desai was told by the manager that his membership would be suspended because he had insisted on wearing his BDS t-shirt.
“The most disturbing part was that during the incident there were many pro-Israel supporters who congregated. One member in particular said they were reassured by the highest levels of the company that these BDS t-shirts would not be allowed into the Virgin Active club,” said Desai, adding that it’s a clear case of the Israeli lobby trying to suppress the expression of the Palestinian solidarity movement.
“The problem here is not wearing the pro-Palestinian t-shirt. The problem lies with racist, bigoted supporters of apartheid Israel at that gym. As a member of Virgin Active, I was very offended that I was getting the phone call when those people complaining and displaying such racism should be dealt with,” he continued.
On Thursday, Virgin Active SA issued a press statement on its website saying its aim was to create “neutral spaces” in which members can pursue their health and wellness goals while, at the same time, accommodating the rights and freedoms of all members.
“We are not in the business of restricting speech or policing personal behaviour unless it contravenes the club rules, the law or carries some kind of threat to the safety of staff and members. In all instances we seek a negotiated solution to any perceived conflict,” said the gym franchise.
“The T-shirt worn by Mr Desai generated strong complaints from fellow members at the Old Eds club and he was politely requested by management not to wear it in future. He aggressively declined this request and said he would force entry if he was refused. When he appeared at the club, clearly intent on making a political statement and generating confrontation, management were genuinely concerned about the potential consequences and called on the police to intervene.”
The company further states that it was a situation they had never encountered before and have learned “valuable lessons.” It further clarified that no legal item of clothing is banned from Virgin Active clubs but we urged its members to understand the need for both tolerance and respect in the club’s space.
“We do not believe our clubs should be forums for contentious political activity. Mr Desai has not been banned and is welcome to return to train as a member as long as he respects the conditions of membership,” said the company.
“We have sought an urgent personal meeting with Mr Desai to discuss our position. Any member who made provable threats on our premises of physical violence against Mr Desai, or any member on any occasion, will have their membership reviewed and possibly terminated.”
BDS SA spokesperson Kwara Kekana said the organisation may take further action and would possibly approach the Human Rights Commission or Equality Court.
Social media reacts
Meanwhile, the issue has seeing a social media backlash with many users taking to Twitter and Facebook to vent their anger at Virgin Active. Some social media users have declared they will wear their BDS or Palestinian t-shirts to Virgin Active gyms in support of Desai and the right to freedom of expression.
“Typical Israeli cowards. Murder, steal, kidnap and then want to play victim. Virgin Active, brace yourself, here comes BDS!” said Zeenath Gangat.
“Make the Virgin Atlantic company stand behind this or distance themselves! Either way it’s a victory. Publicity is there and make them show their true colours,” wrote Bill Slade.
“Where can I get a shirt like this so I can wear one to my Virgin Active?” said Andrew Lu.
Fit Sole added: “And unfortunately the club manager is a Muslim of Arab descent caving into the pro Israeli. I’ve seen many Jews wear t shirts promoting pro- Israel causes at the same gym.”
On Twitter, well known commentator Eusebius McKaizer said Virgin Active SA should condemn the decision of the Houghton gym manager and reassure Desai of his free speech rights.
@ka_Gwata tweeted: “Virgin active at it again. Throwing a member out for wearing a BDS t-shirt. Of course this won’t end well for Virgin Active.”
BDS member Kwara Kekana was optimistic this incident would boost the organisation’s cause.
@KwaraKekana tweeted: “Let’s take this moment and thank the Virgin Active manager for conceding that the non-violent BDS movement is effective.” VOC