New racist spat at Virgin Active

2012-03-25 10:00
Xolani Mbanjwa
A young black man says he is too scared to ever set foot in a gym again after being assaulted by a white gym member during a work-out.

Brian Maluleke (23) was at the Virgin Active in Hatfield last Tuesday when the incident happened.

It was only the second time he had gone to the gym after moving from Joburg to Pretoria and joining the Hatfield branch.

“I had just started working out when I felt a cold liquid dripping down my ear and realised the white man next to me had just spat on my face,” Maluleke said.

“I asked him why he spat on me. He rudely said: ‘It was a mistake. Sorry, dude. I was trying to lift a weight’,” Maluleke recalled.

Other gym members watched in shock and disgust, he said, but did nothing to help.

“I was humiliated and scared. I was the only black person around and I didn’t understand what was happening. I’d never seen my attacker before and we didn’t have a confrontation prior to the attack.”

Virgin Active’s managing director, Ross Faragher-Thomas, has apologised for the incident and suspended the white man’s gym membership.

The gym chain has also helped Maluleke find a therapist and paid for his counselling.

But Maluleke is unhappy with the way he claims the incident was initially handled.

He said that immediately after the incident, he threatened to cancel his gym membership – and claimed the manager and staff offered to help him do so.

“The manager turned my ordeal into a joke and called other gym instructors to come and listen to my complaint.

“The man didn’t apologise and just walked away. When I got home, I washed my face over and over to get the spit out,” he said.

Maluleke was visibly distraught while recounting his story, and said he had not been to work since the incident.

He is unable to sleep properly, and his worried friends call constantly to check up on him.

“Commemorative days, such as Human Rights Day this week, don’t mean anything to me any more and even have a lesser significance than they did before the attack.”

He said he didn’t want to become “another statistic of racial attacks”.

“I never thought this would happen to me. I feel helpless and worthless as a human being. I keep asking myself whether being black is a sin.”

This is the fourth reported racially motivated incident at a Virgin Active gym in South Africa since December.

Both Faragher-Thomas and Virgin founder Richard Branson have strongly condemned the previous incidents.

Maluleke praised Branson for his strongly worded rejection of racism, and said he wanted the gym chain to educate its employees and clients about racial tolerance.

Faragher-Thomas said: “We are committed to creating a safe and supportive environment for all our members. In the event of any member misconduct, a hearing is called which could, and has in the past, result in members being suspended or expelled.”

He said Virgin Active did not condone “any form of discrimination or misconduct by its members in any of
its clubs”.

“Following a full investigation regarding the incident at the Virgin Active Hatfield Club, we confirm that the member’s contract has been suspended in accordance with Virgin Active’s misconduct procedures.”

Dr Benita Moolman, a specialist in social development at the Human Sciences Research Council, said Maluleke’s ordeal was the “exception rather than the rule”.

She said South Africans of all races were trying to cross racial boundaries every day.

“Living together in the same communities, going to the same shops, greeting each other on the street does not mean that there are no racial tensions,” she said.

“There are racial tensions but it is not at a level that will tear the country apart,” said Moolman.

Racial tensions were more heightened in personal or private spaces, she explained.

“Racial tensions are more explicit in public spaces when there is ongoing anger, frustration over an issue, event or service delivery.

“Within public spaces, South Africans are generally polite and respectful. Maluleke’s incident, I would argue, is the exception rather than the rule. At the same time, there are definitely varying degrees of racial tensions across provinces,” said Moolman.