Racism on a plane: Black Motion want R3.7m

Johannesburg - Platinum-selling South African house music stars Black Motion have broken their silence about what happened on British Airways flight 6412 while it waited for its 13:30 takeoff from Cape Town International Airport in December.

They were the only two black passengers in business class when a chair missing a back and not reported by staff caused a white passenger to lose her seat.

The duo was then identified by a white British Airways cabin controller as the first to move to economy.

When they questioned this, the police were called and they were instructed to leave the aircraft.

But their account differs from British Airways staff in a draft report of the airline’s investigation.

Black Motion’s lawyers now plan to launch a R3.7m lawsuit for Thabo “Smol” Mabogwane and Bongani “Murdah” Mohosana, and two of their team, Nicky Seema and JJ Nchabeleng.

They accuse Comair of racism, public humiliation and falsely accusing them of terrorism which damaged their brand.

Letters from Erik Venter, CEO of Comair, which owns the British Airways franchise in South Africa, said it “apologises unreservedly” and admits “that our procedures were at fault”, saying that flight crew involved would be disciplined.

But the company rejected claims of racism and will not pay damages except for R50k to make up for a gig the band missed.

Venter wrote: “We do not believe that such a payment will address the principles of racism that you so vehemently raised in the media, but will rather serve to sweep the matter under the carpet.”

The downgrades

Comair claimed Black Motion were first to be downgraded, not because they are black, but because they were travelling on discounted tickets.

But Comair’s draft investigation report states there were at least three white male passengers who should have been downgraded first.

One was a staff member on a rebated ticket. Another was a free upgrade because of an incident on a previous flight and the third the recipient of “a marketing initiative”.

Verbal abuse claims

The biggest discrepancy between Black Motion’s account and those of the Comair cabin crew is about the duo’s allegedly abusive and aggressive response to being asked to move.

One Comair witness said the musicians were “calm and quiet” when he arrived at the scene, the rest contradict him.

Cabin controller Charmaine Donaldson, who decided Black Motion should be moved, described the duo as “very rowdy and verbally abusive”.

Special services agent Nwabisa Saliti said they “got angry and started shouting and swearing”. Customer services agent Alaria Gamba said they were “screaming”. Veronica Sithole stated Black Motion were “verbally abusive” but the ramp manager “managed” to get them off the plane.

But the Black Motion crew and three other witnesses told City Press they were astonished by the false claims.

Marketing manager Bridgette Ramuluvhana was unwilling to respond to the allegations, saying she did not want to prejudice the outcome of disciplinary proceedings.

They have invited Black Motion to testify.

She said Comair was “repeating our programme on cultural and racial sensitivity for all our employees” and the company does not tolerate discrimination.

Black Motion’s version

Smol told City Press the duo was seated in business class when their names were called and they were asked to speak to Saliti privately. When told they needed to move to economy, “we were confused”.

“Why us? And why both of us when only one seat is broken? The white lady who took my seat even said she feels so embarrassed. I told her it’s okay, I’m not angry with you,” he said.

“I asked, is it because we’re wearing beanies and stuff? Because we look different to other people in business class?

“Then this coloured guy came up to us and said we were holding up the plane and he went into the cockpit.

“When he came back he asked for our details so they [the airline] could make it right with us. I wasn’t even listening to him. I wasn’t interested in giving him my phone number.

“I said, can we just fly? You are the one holding up the plane, not me. They said again we want your details for next time you fly with us. I said I’ll never fly with you again. I want nothing from people who treat passengers like this.”

Smol said his refusal to provide his phone number upset the crew.

About claims he was verbally abusive, he said:“That’s the part I don’t understand. I’m one person who’s very shy. I can’t even argue with you if there are three people looking at me.

“All I did was ask questions. Nwabisa kept saying I must just be calm. I said I’m talking to you in a nice way. It’s not my fault everyone is staring at us.

“They were walking up and down on their walkie talkies, causing a scene and delaying things. Murdah hardly spoke.

“He’s a really quiet guy. I never shouted, I never screamed, I never raised my voice. I never do. I never fight in public.”

Seema agreed: “There were no insults, no screaming, no swearing, no shouting, no verbal abuse. Black Motion are very down to earth, very shy, they can’t even say voetsak to someone.”

Another witness said: “I guess some people might say the one guy raised his voice, I wouldn’t. He was being firm about what was clearly shabby treatment.”

Terrorist threat

Once in economy the incident escalated unexpectedly – also because the air conditioning wasn’t working.

Witnesses said flight captain Roy Clegg decided that Black Motion should leave the plane. Seema spoke to an air hostess who had come from the captain.

“She said the captain doesn’t feel safe cos they might not listen or switch off their phones while the flight is in the air. I said, we’ve travelled the world, we’re not your toys, we know we can use our phones in the air. She said the captain said he doesn’t feel comfortable, he’s avoiding a September 11.”

Another witness said the air hostess “told us about the safety of the captain being the concern and avoiding a 9/11”. The captain announced that the police had been called.

“We didn’t even argue.” said Smol. “We just took our bags. I said it’s better if we get off.”

Outside they found a small group of policemen. “The one was very polite,” said Smol. “He said, ‘Guys I don’t even know why they called us cos you’re so calm. But they said you were fighting and being disruptive.’ He started apologising for the humiliation, said they were just doing their jobs.”

Inside the airport Comair staff allegedly told Black Motion they would do them a “favour” and book them new flights.

“It was when people recognised us and greeted us that everything changed. Now the airline staff asked for our numbers. Later the one even sent a text saying sorry.”

Black Motion, due to release their fifth album in June, will be touring the US and Croatia next.

Said Smol: “We’ve travelled all over the world and we have never experienced anything like this. Not even in Trump’s America.”

(Photo: City Press/Spirit Motion)