Early in August 2014 (in line with the international Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions against Israel campaign) a call for the complete boycott of the South African retailer Woolworths until it ends its Israeli trade links was made by the NC4P, BDS South Africa, COSATU, ANC Youth League, MJC, EFF, PSC and various others. The #BoycottWoolworths campaign (as it has been dubbed) has received wide spread attention and support from various South African Government Ministers, artists, well known personalities and anti-apartheid stalwarts. A growing group of Woolworths shareholders have also begun to back the #BoycottWoolworths campaign calling on the company to end its Israeli trade. The #BoycottWoolworths campaign is currently being rolled out in Australia targetting the David Jones’ chain there (wholly-owned by Woolworths SA).

I. WHY A WOOLWORTHS BOYCOTT?

Woolworths has a trade relationship with Israel: Woolworths sources products and produce amounting to 12 million rands from Israeli companies in violation of the international BDS consumer boycott of Israel. Amongst other items, Woolworths imports Pretzels, Figs, Pomegranates, Couscous, Matzos, Coriander, Figs, Litchis, Plums, Mangoes and other fresh produce from Israel. Israeli agricultural companies are the main beneficiaries and directly complicit in the Israeli occupation of Palestinian lands and theft of natural resources. According to the human rights organization, Who Profits, almost all of Israel’s agricultural companies have illegal operations or dealings in the Occupied Palestinian Territories (click here for report).

Why boycott Woolworths over other retailers: Similar to the 1980s anti-apartheid movement, the BDS movement selects campaigns after careful analysis and strategic considerations. Several retailers in South Africa have some sort of trade relationship with Israel. We can try to boycott all of them but this is a daunting task that has a slim chance of having a concrete impact. Thus we focus our campaigns and move from one target to another as we reach our goals.  Selecting Woolworths, for example, does not mean that other South African supermarkets do not stock Israeli products.Part of the reason for campaigning and calling on Woolworths to end their Israeli trade relations is because Woolworths tries to sell itself as an “ethical company” that sources responsibly. Surely the ethics that Woolworths claims to support include not trading with companies of a country like Israel that routinely abuses human rights? We are calling on Woolworths to respect the Palestinian boycott of Israel, take the lead and end its trade relations with Israel and set an example for other South African retailers.

II. WHAT HAS BEEN THE RESPONSE OF WOOLWORTHS TO THE #BOYCOTTWOOLWORTHS CAMPAIGN?

What has Woolworths response been to the boycott: To date Woolworths has refused to make available the Israeli suppliers that it sources its products from. Sadly, Woolworths also refused for several months to meet with the NC4P, BDS South Africa and other organizers of the #BoycottWoolworths campaign. However, sources from within Woolworths have indicated that the company is feeling the impact of the campaign both at a PR level and on a financial level.

Is it true that Woolworths is took BDS South Africa to court over the boycott of Israel and the #BoycottWoolworths campaign? In what has turned out to be a PR and strategic blunder, Woolworths chose to take legal action through the South Gauteng High Court to stop the #BoycottWoolworths campaign.  The South Gauteng High Court passed a court order that forced Woolworths to meet with BDS South Africa (see alongside) and BDS South Africa, as an organisation, agreed in good faith through the court order to refrain from in-store protest actions. However, the court agreement by BDS South Africa to refrain from in-store protest actions applies only to BDS South Africa and does not extend to other organisations and/or entities and/or people who are not staff members or part of BDS South Africa. The court order is having little impact on stopping the #BoycottWoolworths campaign, click here to see its impact during the recent festive season.

Why did Woolworths go to court: Woolworths, in its court papers (page 14, paragraph 21) state that: “With the imminent onset of the festive season and the expected increased customer activity the Applicant [Woolworths] no longer has a choice. It now has to act in order to protect its business operations…the present court application is accordingly the Applicant’s [Woolworths] only option to restore the rule of law and to enable it to trade freely as it has done until the [#BoycottWoolworths] protests started.” By Woolworth’s own admission the #BoycottWoolworths campaign is having an impact. Secondly, Woolworths claimed, amongst other things, that they were concerned about a drop in business for the festive season – this it would seem is the intention of their court application.The NC4P and BDS South Africa maintain that all of our #BoycottWoolworths protest actions that have been carried out by us have always been non-violent. We disagree that the only option that Woolworths has was to go to court. The NC4P and BDS South Africa view this legal bullying and intimidation by a retail giant such as Woolworths of an activist organisation and consumer campaign as unnecessary. This issue could easily be resolved if Woolworths had simply accepted the numerous requests by the NC4P and BDS South Africa to meet and resolve this issue. The boycott of Woolworths and the protest actions can easily come to an end if Woolworths were simply to terminate its relations with Apartheid Israel and source its products locally.

III. HOW DOES A CONSUMER BOYCOTT WORK?

Is it a blanket boycott of Woolworths or just Israeli products they sell:  The call for the boycott of Woolworths is for a complete boycott. The issue is not with the Israeli fig or promegranate in a Woolworths store – it is with Woolworths as a company having a trade relationship with Israeli companies. Out of principle we boycott all Israeli products – regardless of which retailer is stocking them. However, BDS and the boycott of Israel is modelled on the successful 1980s boycott of Apartheid South Africa which included a boycott (out of principle) of all goods from Apartheid South Africa but also, as a tactic, called on international companies not to trade with Apartheid South Africa. We are calling on Woolworths to do what other companies did during Apartheid and end its trade relations with Israel until Israel respects international law and human rights.

Is the boycott of Woolworths Food Stores or all its stores including clothes:  The call for the boycott of Woolworths is for a complete boycott of all Woolworths stores and products.

Does the boycott just involve refraining from purchasing at Woolworths:  No, it involves actively writing to the store, organizing pickets, protests and taking other actions.

IV. WOOLWORTHS ACTING RECKLESSLY

Woolworths is maintaining its trade with Israel (for produce that is available elsewhere) and ignoring the requests by its consumers, South African civil society and several Government Ministers. This approach by the management of Woolworths is tarnishing the image of the company and jeopardizing the share price of the firm. This will certainly be deemed to be reckless management when Woolworths could have, firstly, met with the NC4P, BDS South Africa and others. Woolworths is coming across as unconcerned and indifferent to customer retention.Woolworths claims to “believe in the principle of responsible citizenship.” However, importing products from Israeli companies in violation of the international boycott of Israel called by the indigenous Palestinians contradicts this principle.

V. WHAT WOULD WOOLWORTHS HAVE DONE DURING APARTHEID?

It would seem that Woolworths is not interested in aligning itself with human rights and ethical, responsible business practices. Woolworths has tried to suggest that it is following government policy. However, government policy is the minimum that a company should respect; we would expect a company such as Woolworths to go beyond the minimum when it comes to respecting human rights and the wishes of consumers.If Woolworths was a company based in, say, the UK, during apartheid, would Woolworths have adopted the position that it is “apolitical” (as it has done recently regarding Israel)? Would Woolworths not have respected the South African liberation struggle’s call for a boycott of Apartheid South African goods (regardless of whether the UK Government had officially called for that boycott or not)?In a statement issued on 30 July 2014, Woolworths defended its sourcing of products from Israeli companies stating that it “has no political affiliations.” Buying from Israel, when many other markets are available (including local South African markets), is an endorsement of that country’s practices. Imagine buying from Apartheid South Africa during the 1980s and claiming to be “apolitical”.  Archbishop Desmond Tutu has famously said: “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor.