Muhammed Desai

National Co-ordinator, BDS South Africa

“Activism is not something you try out,” says Muhammed Desai, the national co-ordinator of Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions against Israel in South Africa (BDS South Africa). “It’s a commitment. It’s like a relationship, you don’t just play around with love, you commit yourself to it.”

Desai (28) is committed to creating a more just world.  After matriculating from a school in Port Shepstone, KwaZulu-Natal, he travelled to Jerusalem to work for a Christian organisation called Sabeel. His experiences there prompted him to co-found the Wits Palestine Solidarity Committee upon his return.

Desai led the organisation for five years before co-founding BDS South Africa in response to a call from Palestinians for the international community to impose a programme of boycott, divestment and sanctions against Israel. The movement is essentially his full-time occupation and involves addressing community gatherings, facilitating workshops, attending court cases and meetings, and organising pickets and protests, among other things.

He was part of the campaign that saw the University of Johannesburg impose an academic boycott of Israel when it terminated its institutional ties with Israel’s Ben-Gurion University in 2011.

He was also recently part of the South African team that worked on a campaign calling on the Microsoft co-founder’s organisation, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, to withdraw its investment from G4S Security, a company that provides various services to prisons where Palestinian political prisoners are detained. Gates subsequently withdrew the foundation’s R1.9-billion investment from G4S.

Desai laments the fact that due to his heavy involvement in BDS South Africa, he only gets to see his parents for a few days each year. However, the sacrifices seem to have paid off.  A mere two years after the formation of BDS South Africa, a September 2012 editorial article published by Israel’s Ha’aretz newspaper stated that the pro-Israeli lobby in South Africa has been severely “outplayed” and “overpowered” by BDS South Africa.

“To think that I –  a scrawny Indian boy from a small farming town – and fellow comrades were part of the out-smarting of a ruthless lobby backed by one of the most oppressive and heavily funded regimes is kind of motivating. It gives hope, that truth and justice will overcome injustice.”  — Fatima Asmal