Last week, Israel denied entry to South African activist Marthie Momberg after detaining her for eleven hours.
Momberg is a researcher at Stellenbosch University in the Western Cape province. She serves on the leadership committee of Kairos Southern Africa and had planned to travel to Bethlehem to participate in a Kairos Palestine conference. As a 2011 volunteer with the World Council of Churches’ EAPPI program, she monitored Israel’s human rights violations in the West Bank.
Last month, Momberg publicly announced her discontent as a shareholder of South African retailer Woolworths over the company’s refusal to end its contracts with providers from Israel.
The Electronic Intifada interviewed Momberg shortly after her return to South Africa.
Adri Nieuwhof: On 1 December 2014, you were stopped by Israel from entering the occupied West Bank at the Allenby bridge crossing. Is it clear to you why? Were Israeli forces explicit about the reason?
Marthie Momberg: No, they gave absolutely no reason. Throughout the day when I asked them if I would be able to enter or not, and what is the rest of process, they gave no answers. Later that night when the South African ambassador fetched me, he confirmed my suspicion that it is a well-designed process whereby a person handles only a part and then you are passed on to another person and another. Whenever you ask someone, they shrug their shoulders and say it is “up to someone else” or “I don’t know.” So no one wants to accept responsibility. About fifteen to twenty minutes before they told me I can’t enter Israel, they told me that my visa will be granted. So it is an attempt to intimidate, to provoke and to punish if they take eleven hours to reach this decision.
AN: Can you guess why you were not allowed to enter?
MM: They did an Internet search on me because they asked questions about the South African National Coalition for Palestine and they knew about the march for Gaza on 9 August. [Momberg addressed this largest post-apartheid demonstration in South Africa.] I gathered that they don’t like my ideology, they don’t like the fact that I want human rights and dignity for everyone in the world, just not only for them.
AN: You say they did an Internet search. Was this done as part of the process or did they already know who you are?
MM: I am not sure. At the first counter, the lady was about to give me the visa when her colleague pointed to something on the computer screen and said “She must be quizzed.” They did that to my two colleagues as well. So I don’t know what they knew. A man and a woman searched me and my luggage behind a locked door. They constructed a profile with my personal details on their computer system and another woman did an Internet search on me before also questioning me. They were very aware of the impact of BDS [the international boycott, divestment and sanctions movement].
AN: You are active in the boycott Woolworths campaign. In the past, when we campaigned against apartheid in South Africa, people criticized us for targeting Shell and not other oil companies. Is this type of argument also used in South Africa?
MM: Absolutely, that argument is used all the time. Our response is that we selected Woolworths because it markets itself as an ethical company. What we are exposing now is that it is a sales technique. The morality that goes along with it is not there. The second reason for targeting Woolworths is that they don’t stock a lot of Israeli produce. So it should be a no-brainer for them to drop it. They choose not to do so. But with the annual general meeting, the media turned against them. Woolworths board members refused to answer shareholders’ questions on their ethical policy. Suddenly, mainstream media like SABC 2 [a national TV channel] gives us all this time to sensitize the public on the boycott Woolworths campaign.
AN: You have raised your voice as a shareholder of Woolworths. What was your key message to the company?
MM: I said that the real issue is not the number of Israeli products on the shelves but rather the existence of trade contracts between Woolworths and Israeli businesses. I stressed that peaceful economic resistance against Israel and her partners is by no means a protest against Jews, but against a systemic regime. It is part of an international strategy. I told Woolworths that ethical behavior demands moral leadership. Others argue that Woolworths hasn’t done anything wrong, because they are completely within the law. But ethics starts where the law ends. As a shareholder I expect a consistent, reliable integrity from Woolworths. Woolworths feels singled out, but South Africa’s major date producer Karstens Farms has already ended its ties with Hadiklaim in Israel. Both the Woolworths shares and the brand image are built on perceptions. When I told the general meeting that the brand is questioned, Simon Susman, the board’s chairperson, nodded his head. Woolworths also surveyed their consumers on the reasons for the drop in sales and mention their relations with Woolworths twice in it. So Woolworths publicly recognizes the impact of the boycott. We want Woolworths to reclaim its image as a retail leader, but with integrity and for the right reasons.
AN: What is driving you to be involved in BDS activism?
MM: Firstly, BDS is a call by the majority of the Palestinians, it is nonviolent and makes logical sense. It empowers members of civil society like me to do something. But if you go deeper, I am one of those South Africans who did nothing to end apartheid. That is quite a burden to live with. I thought at that stage that it is possible to be apolitical and that I had no role to play. But it is not true. You deceive yourself. You are never happy, just never happy. You are never proud of yourself. Through the years, I gained more strength within myself. I realize now that to stay silent and to do nothing is actually a choice, it is actually an action because you maintain the system of discrimination, of oppression, of apartheid. Once I had been to the West Bank to monitor human rights violations I could not walk away from it. It became the focus of what I do.
AN: Based on your experience, what is your message to members of the group in power, the Jewish Israelis?
MM: As I was sitting at that border control post, I looked in their eyes and thought if only you can stop being so scared and stop having such an enormous need to identify an enemy in people like me. It is about discovering freedom within yourself, about trusting life. That life is ok, you are ok and most people are also ok. We all want to be loved and to give love. So I want to say to them, take the risk. No, it isn’t a risk. Take the step, be honest with yourself and open your heart. Just see the other person. It is as much about them as it is about you.