Branson must pull the plug on Active racism treadmill

2012-02-11 12:11

It is remarkable that Virgin Active South Africa seems to think a handshake and a final warning are enough to deal with racist bullies.

What is even more mind-boggling is that it only resorted to these measures when pushed by aggrieved members.
This week South Africans woke up to the news that a woman from Alexandra, Liz Hleza, had been subjected to the most vile racial abuse at the Morningside branch of the gym chain. The picture that emerged was of an institution that would rather hide behind legalese than act decisively to root out racism.

It was hardly surprising when well-known journalist Lesley Mofokeng revealed his own struggle to get Virgin Active to deal with his humiliation at the hands of a racist bully.

As Hleza says, when the manager called her assailant into his office, the man refused to be questioned. When a meeting was set up he failed to attend it even though he made sure he did not miss his spinning class. In the case of Mofokeng, more than a month passed with no response from Virgin Active Sunninghill to his complaint.

When I heard about Hleza’s incident I was dismayed to learn that, given the scale of the humiliation that she had been subjected to, Virgin Active could imagine that a handshake session would be enough to deal with the violation of her dignity.

What was even more alarming was that a member of the gym’s disciplinary committee threatened to expel Hleza if her account was not consistent. But at no stage did the gym consider such a sanction against her violent assailant.

The responses from Virgin Active via its Twitter spokesperson Giovanni Ghignone reinforced my impression that Virgin Active failed to grasp the magnitude of the offence. Replying to Kaya FM’s John Perlman, Ghignone said “we facilitated a face-to-face meeting where she wholeheartedly accepted an apology. Both parties consider the incident resolved”.

If this was true then Hleza would not have gone to The Star with her story and it was clear that Virgin Active had simply rushed to a solution. Ghignone tried to fob me off with the cavalier response “that story unfortunately doesn’t tell the whole truth. We have dealt with it and Liz is satisfied with the outcome”.

Not convinced that Virgin Active South Africa fully understood the predicament they were in, I wrote a letter to Virgin chairperson, Richard Branson, asking him to deal directly with the matter. I hoped that given his well documented love for South Africa and commitment to justice and fairness, he would restore sanity to what was a poor handling of an incendiary matter. Sadly I have not received any response.

It is worth noting that, according to Hleza’s account, this was no mere accidental confrontation, but a full blown hurling of virtually every insult available to the bigot. As Bruce Whitfield of Talk Radio 702 said when chatting to me on his programme, “I certainly won’t repeat such words on air”. Suffice it to say that she was called a “bloody k****r, a cockroach and a selfish b***h” all for shouting “yebo” in a spinning class.

Mofokeng did not have any joy either after he was subjected to a torrent of racial abuse by a member of the gym. His emails were unanswered and his calls not returned. Mofokeng was shocked that his use of an exercise bike could incite a member of the gym to repeatedly call him “a f**k” and “a boy”, and add “you black people want to take everything”, “this is your f**king country and you want to control everything”.

In a plea to the manager of Virgin Active Sunninghill, Mofokeng wrote: “I am afraid I will not tolerate this. I am a member of Virgin Active and have every right to train there. No one has the right to abuse me and get away with it, and worse of all to have the gym protect the culprit.”

It is incredible that it was only after a storm broke out on Twitter that managing director Ross Faragher-Thomas realised that these allegations could not simply be dismissed with a cheap handshake. More than a month after these incidents took place, he promised to “personally investigate the allegations”.

Millions of South Africans will be hoping that he does not waste this opportunity to take a strong stand against racism and show bullies that they are not welcome at Virgin Active.

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