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.
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.
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.
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.