South Africa retailer Woolworths takes Israel boycotters to court

South Africa Deputy Minister in the Presidency Buti Manamela shows his support. (BDS South Africa)

In early August, a powerful coalition of South African solidarity organizations launched a campaign against retail giant Woolworths over its sales of products from Israel.

The Boycott Woolworths Campaign unites the National Coalition for Palestine, BDS South Africa, South Africa’s largest trade union federation COSATU, the ANC Youth League, the Muslim Judicial Council and various other organizations.

The coalition holds national days of action the last Saturday of each month, which have received widespread media coverage.

So far, Woolworths has refused invitations to meet the coalition to discuss the imports of mainly agricultural products from Israel. The products represent a relatively small sum of 12 million Rand ($1.09 million) and so could easily be sourced from other countries. 

Instead, Woolworths is taking BDS South Africa to court.

Risky decision

Announced last month, Woolworths’ legal action against BDS South Africa to end the boycott of the company is a risky move, according to one analyst. Branding and advertising expert Andy Rice told radio station The Voice of the Cape last week that “in the crisis management world, you try and resolve things out of the public eye.”

If Woolworths decides to continue its legal battle, it may end up damaging the company’s brand.

Rice argues that Woolworths could better resolve the issue without recourse to litigation. Legal action around a boycott may garner more attention than prior to the court case. Rice says that the boycott damages the company’s international reputation.

On 25 November, a court will hear Woolworths’ demand for an end to protest actions in and near its stores.

Organizers of the campaign have no intention to give in to what they call Woolworths’ “legal bullying” and are determined to pursue the campaign, according to a press statement.

Shareholders express concerns

Meanwhile, concerned Woolworths shareholders and COSATU held a joint press conference on 18 November which was reported on a major national television channel.

Nadia Hassan expressed the concerns of a group of senior black businessmen holding shares in Woolworths about the irresponsible manner in which the company is handling the Boycott Woolworths campaign. The management should have met with the activists advancing the campaign to try to resolve the issue, she said. Going to court should have been the last option pursued by Woolworths, she argued.

Jewish human rights activist Alan Horwitz expressed support for the campaign on behalf of a group of Jewish Woolworths shareholders. Israel has systematically violated the rights of not just Palestinians, but of other minorities in Israel. “Boycott as a nonviolent response to state oppression is a completely valid and ethical response, and that is why we support this action,” he said.

COSATU spokesperson Patrick Craven announced that a high level delegation will attend Woolworths annual general meeting to reaffirm the union’s support to the call on Woolworths to end its relations with Israeli companies.

Activist shareholders from BDS South Africa will also attend the annual general meeting. In the 1980s, anti-apartheid activists used the same tactic to pressure companies to end their ties with the South African apartheid regime.

Broad support

Woolworths is facing a campaign which received wide support from various groups and celebrities including musician Simphiwe Dana, radio personality Shaka Sisulu, anti-apartheid icon Ahmed Kathrada and television actor Thato Molamu, who stars in a popular series.

Government officials have also expressed their support to the campaign, including Minister for Higher Education and Training Blade Nzimande, Deputy Minister and Head of ANC International Relations Obed Bapela, Deputy Minister of Public Service and Administration Ayanda Dlodlo, Deputy Minister of Basic Education Enver Surty and Deputy Minister in the Presidency Buti Manamela (pictured above).

Woolworths could win the respect of all these figures if the company followed the example of other institutions which ended their links with businesses involved in Israel’s violations of rights of the Palestinian people.

Given the broad South African support for the Boycott Woolworths campaign, it is unlikely that legal action will bring an end to the campaign. The company should realize that activists have exeperience from a long history of creative activism against apartheid to draw on.

On 26 November, the day of the annual general meeting, the National Coalition for Palestine and BDS South Africa will organize a protest march to Woolworths headquarters.




Israel has treated black people awfully and has shown itself to be a racist nation who have been systematically targeting black people and businesses locking them up and attacking their homes, cars,workplaces and innocent people. That is without adding the war crimes it has been found guilty of those native of region by using illegal weapons including white phosphorus bombs on hospitals. If anything the court should stand up for its people and show solidarity with Palestine who have been burdened with the brutality of a facist regime at the hands of the IDF. Viva Palestina. Zionism=Terrorism


the woolworths lunch counter that launched the sitin movement in 1961 in Greensboro, NC is now a museum.


Woolworths will learn the lesson the hard way. Decent people do not buy good from Israel and most especially not good made in the Occupied Territories of Palestine and labeled "Made in Israel". Protest is a legal avenue of redress and South Africa need not put themselves back in their former apartheid mindset by ruling against people protesting against apartheid in Israel. It would be a very bad move both for Woolworths and for South Africa to be seen as supporting apartheid in Israel.


South African Woolworths and hypocrisy:
Honor Mandela:
Ignore Mandela: “The UN took a strong stand against apartheid; and over the years, an international consensus was built, which helped to bring an end to this iniquitous system. But we know too well that our freedom is incomplete without the freedom of the Palestinians.”


Perhaps everybody ought to just boycott Woolworths!

Wish I could join your protest --- Sydney, australia is a bit far away.

However we have had, and won a major fight here against in a case bought against a Professor by Israeli interests.

As will surprise nobody, they p run unless they are winning!

Good Luck!


"Woolworths [heart] Apartheid!]

That ought to be popular in South Africa,


There has not been a Woolworths store in Canada since 1994. Woolworth heiress Barbara Woolworth Hutton (1912 - 1979) was a very interesting person. She was a philanthropist.

Adri Nieuwhof

Adri Nieuwhof's picture

Adri Nieuwhof is a human rights advocate based in the Netherlands and former anti-apartheid activist at the Holland Committee on Southern Africa. Twitter: @steketeh