Why is Pharrell Williams promoting retailer of Israeli goods?

Pharrell Williams has been accused of indifference to the Palestinians’ plight. (Thomas Hawk/Flickr)

Authorities in Cape Town are trying to prevent large demonstrations against a performance by the pop singer Pharrell Williams over his partnership with a retailer stocking Israeli goods.

Williams — best known for the international hit “Happy” — recently teamed up with Woolworths in a project with the stated aim of assisting South Africa’s schools.

The partnership has met an angry response from supporters of the Palestinian call for boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) against Israel. Since last year, Woolworths has been the target of a campaign in South Africa because of its sale of Israeli goods, particularly fruit and vegetables.

BDS campaigners are planning to make their displeasure known when Williams performs in Cape Town next month.

The city’s authorities and the concert venue have refused permission for a large demonstration outside his show. While initially stating that no protests would be allowed, the City of Cape Town subsequently announced that only 150 people may demonstrate.

In a statement, the Western Cape branch of the ruling African National Congress argued that the city’s authorities are violating the constitutional right to protest.

Indifferent to suffering?

The ANC branch has promised to “actively participate and assist in mobilization” for the protest.

It also slammed how the city administration had decided to limit the number of protesters, without any consultation with Palestine solidarity activists. The administration is run by the Democratic Alliance, a rival to the ANC.

Activists quoted in Rolling Stone magazine vowed to continue with protests. Among the ideas floated were protesting inside the venue or blocking roads in the surrounding area.

BDS South Africa, a Palestine solidarity group, has described the campaign against Woolworths as the country’s largest consumer boycott since white rule formally ended in 1994.

Braam Hanekom, a BDS South Africa spokesperson, has argued that Williams is “walking into a very angry, unhappy environment because he has chosen to walk with Woolworths,” according to Rolling Stone.

BDS South Africa has made a parody video, in which Williams is depicted as denouncing Israel’s crimes.

The US Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (USACBI) has called on Williams to end his partnership with Woolworths and cancel a gig in Tel Aviv, also scheduled for next month.

Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians fits the UN’s definition of apartheid, which refers to the domination of one racial group over another.

In an open letter to the singer, USACBI noted that Woolworths is “boycotted throughout South Africa for its sales of Israeli products, funding and benefiting [Israeli] apartheid,” the group stated.

The campaign group also referred to Williams’ newly-released song “Freedom.” Its lyrics say: “I don’t care who you are, where you’re from, or how much you make, you deserve freedom.”

USACBI has argued that Williams’ message conflicts with how he has so far refused to respect the Palestinian call for a boycott of Israel. According to the group, Williams seems “indifferent to the suffering of Palestinian children, who are denied the most basic human rights by Israel.”




While I applaud the success of the BDS movement in South Africa in building national and international awareness of the BDS campaign, I think the targetting of Woolworth's and Pharell Williams for working with the compnay raises some important strategic questions. As the grassroots movement grows an increasing number of local groups and individuals are determining the targets for boycotting for different reasons. “Israeli companies and international firms that participate in Israel’s human rights violations” is open to some interpretation but including every retail outlet that sells any Israeli goods might be casting the net too wide.
We set up http://bdslist.org/full-list/ to contribute to this discussion around what to target because a group of us felt the need for greater clarity around what companies qualify for BDS targetting.


Yes because addressing the markets where slaves were sold wasn't important. It only made sense to address the people who transported slaves?

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