South Africa: Virgin Active Caught in Racism Row

South African newspapers ran a story recently about a South African woman who was racially abused in public at the Virgin Active gym in Morningside, Johannesburg. The story has caused a public outcry on social media which resulted in Virgin Active re-opening the investigation into the incident.

Memeburn reported:

The Virgin Active franchise of gyms has reopened an investigation into a racist incident which allegedly occurred during a class at one of its clubs, following pressure on social media.
The incident in question reportedly occurred late last year. During a spinning class one member allegedly took offence to another’s enthusiasm calling her a “bloody k*****, a cockroach and a selfish bitch”.

The woman had reportedly been shouting “Yebo” (meaning “yes” in a number of South Africa’s indigenous languages) as the instructor put them through the various exercises.The two parties were then supposed to meet up, with the man being ordered to apologise to the woman. He then reportedly said that he would not be able to make the arranged meeting.

According to the woman, however, the man saw her at the club on the day in question but refused to speak to her.
Speaking to national newspaper The Star, the woman said that Virgin Active’s disciplinary committee had repeatedly questioned her account as her alleged attacker was a lawyer and that if she was found to be lying her gym contract would be terminated.
Virgin Active’s Karen Gordon, meanwhile, told The Star that “the member that allegedly misbehaved also received formal correspondence…which included a final warning”.

That, it seems, is where Virgin Active would have left the matter had it not received national media attention.

@ComicalTshepo at a Virgin Active Gym in South Africa Virgin Active waiting for the moment to shout ‘YEBO’ (a Zulu word meaing Yes). Photo courtesy of @ComicalTshepo.

Media reports resulted in an outcry on social media platforms such as Twitter and Facebook, Virgin Active backtracked and decided to re-open the issue. This also resulted in other people coming forward about similar incidents.

Even Virgin Head, Richard Branson decided to respond:

We do not condone any form of discrimination at Virgin – especially racism. We are taking this incident extremely seriously and intend to look at all the facts to reach the right outcome for all parties concerned. Ross Faragher-Thomas, Virgin Active South Africa’s Managing Director, is investigating the whole incident personally and is meeting the two members next week to make sure we look at the facts and are fair to everyone who is involved. A meeting was also conducted with both members on Saturday, and the member apologised to the other.

However, we do not condone members or anybody else abusing each other in any way and intend to reinvestigate this incident fully.

I have been to South Africa on many occasions and been inspired by the many wonderful people I have met there. As Jonathan Jansen said: “My South Africa is…often unseen, yet powered by the remarkable lives of ordinary people. It is the citizens who keep the country together through millions of acts of daily kindness.”

We intend to get to the bottom of this incident and I want to repeat that we will not tolerate any form of prejudice.

Facebook users commented on Virgin Active Facebook page following Richard Branson statement. Anne Barker responded:

I don't think your response is strong enough Mr Branson. Your MD here should have spoken up straight away, suspended the manager of the Sunninghill and blocked the membership of the person who spoke so shockingly to a woman. The millions of acts of kindness become nullified by one racist bigot.

Khanyisa Vuyokazi Mbassa felt that:

Apartheid still lives in this country, all the that the democracy did was to give Black south africans freedom to retaliate without fear of being incarcerated.

The South African blogosphere was not behind. Kaloo5 note that:

So Virgin Active were rather inactive in their response and handling of the matter, possibly hoping that it would simply go away. Kudos to Liz Hleza for insisting her story be told, and not taking the abuse lying down.

Tarryn observed that the incident was not about race:

The fact remains. This was about inappropriate behaviour, not about race. It’s sad how easy it is to start a racial war in this country. More tolerance, people. It’s the only way we’ll survive.

Pierre De Vos looked at the incident from a legal and constitutional perspective:

However, regardless of whether one follows the stricter definition of discrimination provided in the definitions section of PEPUDA or whether one follows the provisions of section 7, the Virgin Active gym might well be found guilty of unfair discrimination.

Meanwhile we await word from Virgin Active to see whether the publicity might have shamed it into taking this reported incident as seriously as it deserves. If it does not, Hleza might well want to take both the abuser and Virgin Active to the Equality Court.

On Twitter @PabiMoloi said:

@PabiMoloi: I'm proud that the Mama spoke up about the racist attack at Virgin Active. There is still deep racism in South Africa. Don't be fooled.

@Eusebius felt that:

@Eusebius: The acid test of whether you TRULY ‘get race’ is whether you got angry as you read that article about the racism incident at Virgin Active

@KimSchulze urged virgin active members to protest:

@KimSchulze: I would like to urge every virgin active class-taker tonight, to yell out “YEBO!” in protest against the forty other Spinners who failed to

Some users such as @ComicalTshepo took up the challenge and decided to yell “Yebo” in protest:

At a spin class at Virgin Active waiting for my big moment to shout ‘YEBO’. Wish me luck

@anele wanted to know the culprit's name:

@anele: Dear Virgin Active, as a kaffir I would like to know this guys name just so us kaffirs know to not make the mistake of dealing with him

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