“Happiness may have different meanings for different people. But we can all agree that it means working to end conflict, poverty and other unfortunate conditions in which so many of our fellow human beings live. The pursuit of happiness lies at the core of human endeavours.”
Ban Ki Moon, Secretary-General of the United Nations on International Happiness Day
17 June 2015
Dear Mr Pharrell Williams,
We are a human rights organisation in South Africa which is a part of the international non-violent boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) against Israel movement.
In 2005, inspired by the successful boycott and isolation of Apartheid South Africa, Palestinians called on the international community to play a decisive role in their struggle for self-determination and an end to Israel’s Apartheid policies. Palestinians called on global civil society, artists and multinational corporations to participate in the nonviolent of boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) campaign against Israel until it complies with international law in respect of its treatment of Palestinians.
We are writing to you with concern regarding your current engagement and collaboration with Woolworths in its #AreYouWithUs marketing campaign and your planned tour of South Africa in September this year under the auspices of Woolworths. We realise that this letter is long but its only an indication of how serious we take this issue.
Woolworths is currently the target of the largest consumer boycott that South Africa has witnessed since the end of apartheid in 1994 due to its persistent continued trade with Israeli entities. Woolworths is deliberately ignoring the pleas of its customers, youth movements, education groups, human rights organisations, trade unions and South African government ministers to stop sourcing products from Israel.
We have keenly observed your involvement with the UN Foundation, your participation in the UN International Day of Happiness and your commitment to children as the future of the planet we all call home. We firmly support your belief that “happiness is a birthright” and we are of the view that no human being should be excluded from experiencing happiness on the basis of race, ethnicity, language, culture, religion, gender or sexual orientation.
As a human rights organization that advocates for the boycott of Israel due to Israel’s illegal occupation of Palestinian territory and its oppressive and violent treatment of indigenous Palestinians, we view your collaboration with Woolworths as inconsistent with your claims on happiness as a birthright for all. Your relationship with Woolworths is tantamount to supporting a company that is adamant in its refusal to act ethically and halt its trade with apartheid Israel.
The Chief Executive Officer of Woolworths, Iain Moir, claims that your collaboration with his company “is genuinely about doing the right thing, about bringing to people’s attention to issues that should be brought to their attention.” This is disingenuous and hypocritical in that Woolworths is adamant in its refusal to act ethically and halt its trade with apartheid Israel. Your collaboration with Woolworths will and is correctly seen as an endorsement of its unethical policies.
Imagine being called on by the anti-apartheid movement of the 1980s to NOT partner and work for a company that is refusing to terminate its relations with Apartheid South Africa. Back then it would be seen as an endorsement of Apartheid South Africa’s crimes and today too it is seen as an endorsement of Apartheid Israel’s crimes.
Last year numerous sectors of South African society including BDS South Africa, various human rights organisations, trade unions, political parties, youth groups and other organizations attempted to meet with Woolworths to bring to its attention why trading and sourcing products from Israel is contrary to human rights, ethics, environmental sustainability, advancement of education and good water usage. Woolworths arrogantly refused to meet with us and other human rights campaigners but were however eventually compelled to a meeting after we forced the company to do so through a High Court Order. In essence, we informed Woolworths that NOT trading with Israel is the “right thing to do”.
One of our most noble and respected leaders and a global icon, Archbishop Desmond Tutu has emphatically stated that: “those who continue to do business with Israel, who contribute to a sense of “normalcy” in Israeli society, are doing the people of Israel and Palestine a disservice. They are contributing to the perpetuation of a profoundly unjust status quo.” Woolworths has chosen to ignore these pertinent words of an apartheid struggle veteran and a tireless advocate for human rights and justice.
As an artist of global stature, you are probably aware of some of the dimensions of the Israeli-Palestinian issue. However, we would like to bring to your attention some of the gross human rights violations which Israel has perpetrated. Last year, Israel committed what some world leaders considered a massacre against the besieged Palestinians in Gaza, killing more than 2,100 Palestinians, including over 500 children (65% of whom were under the age of 12). Israel has also instituted an infrastructure of discrimination, oppression and torture reminiscent of South Africa’s apartheid policies (http://tinyurl.com/phq3r4o).
Separate roads and buses (http://tinyurl.com/kuyhdnx and http://tinyurl.com/mdhkggw) for Israelis and Palestinians, with Palestinians subjected to severe limitations on mobility and inadequate travel infrastructure, laws permitting one ethnic group automatic citizenship while denying another ethnic group the same rights to citizenship and access to their property and homes (http://tinyurl.com/nx7vyhp), the expansion of illegal settlements on Palestinian territory and the arbitrary arrest and detention of Palestinians including minors (as we speak 186 Palestinian children are in Israeli prisons) without due process and a fair trial are some of the few ways which Israel discriminates against Palestinians within a larger matrix of oppression and discrimination which exists in Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories.
Israel’s practices of discrimination, racism and oppression is well documented by Amnesty International (http://tinyurl.com/mfr77o2), Human Rights Watch (http://tinyurl.com/kr849pb). In fact, in 2009 our own government research body the Human Sciences Research Council (HSRC) found, after a South African government commissioned investigation, that Israel is guilty of apartheid and colonialism (http://tinyurl.com/cc88loa). The 2011 Russell Tribunal on Palestine confirmed these findings (http://tinyurl.com/kf3c9hs) and in March 2012 the United Nations Committee for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination made similar findings (http://tinyurl.com/n9552p3). In 2014, the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) released a scathing report on the state of human rights in Israel, reporting that there is “institutionalised discrimination” in the Israeli occupied Palestinian territory”.
Senior South African anti-apartheid icons and stalwarts have stated that what the Palestinians are experiencing is akin to (and in some respects far worse than) what we black South Africans experienced in South Africa under apartheid. Israel has been severely condemned by these stalwart struggle veterans who include struggle icon Winnie Mandela; the personal friend and fellow prisoner to Nelson Mandela, Ahmed Kathrada; Jewish anti-apartheid icon, Denis Goldberg; the late anti-apartheid stalwart Kader Asmal; and Archbishop Desmond Tutu.
As South Africans who suffered under the brutal apartheid regime we are keenly aware of the importance of solidarity and international advocacy in the 1980s on the part of individuals, companies and artists such as you in assisting us in our struggle by boycotting apartheid South Africa. The human rights violations by apartheid South Africa against us Black people were clear to those that refused to be charmed by the racist propaganda of apartheid South Africa as an island of Western civility among its savage African neighbors. The Israeli human rights violations and apartheid practices against indigenous Palestinians are also clear to those who are truly committed to the struggle for human rights, justice and the pursuit of happiness.
During the dark days of South African apartheid, businesses, artists and individuals who boycotted Apartheid South Africa and companies trading with Apartheid did it as to not be complicit in Apartheid’s crimes and oppression. Their principled and ethical conduct was praised by Archbishop Desmond Tutu who said that “[t]he withdrawal of trade with South Africa by multinational corporations with a conscience in the 1980s was ultimately one of the key levers that brought the apartheid state – bloodlessly – to its knees. Those corporations understood that by contributing to South Africa’s economy, they were contributing to the retention of an unjust status quo”.
There are numerous companies today that are terminating their links with Israeli entities for the same reason. Unfortunately and very disappointingly, Woolworths (though claiming to appreciate human rights and being sensitive to ethical sourcing) is not doing the same. It has continued its trade with Israel and furthermore proceeds to defend such trade. Woolworths, as a South African company that unabashedly markets itself as ethical it is shameful that it ignores the South African legacy of struggle and solidarity against apartheid and its failure to conduct itself in an ethical manner. This is not a company one wants ones image to be tarnished by. This is not how good businesses do good business.
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 apartheid 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 that “[i]f you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor.” This is not a matter of politics but ethics. We would expect a company such as Woolworths (that claims to be ethical, responsible and caring) to ensure that the products it sources are not compromised and tainted by oppression, discrimination and human rights violations. However, Woolworths is conspicuously silent on how it deals with entities and/or persons that are guilty of criminal conduct; guilty of contravening local and/or international law; condemned by the United Nations General Assembly and Human Rights Council; and/or condemned by reputable human rights organisations such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch.
If Woolworths was a company based in the USA during the period of the apartheid regime in South Africa, 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 USA government had officially called for that boycott or not? It would seem that given Woolworths current stance, it would have continued to merrily trade with apartheid South Africa while South Africa’s apartheid regime continued its ruthless oppression of us Black people.
We can comment on each of the aims your intended collaboration with Woolworths and indicate how the pursuit of such aims is disingenuous given Woolworths continuing trade with Israeli entities. However, we will limit it for now to the issue of education, environment and water:
ENVIROMENT AND CLIMATE CONTROL
Woolworths claims to wanting to protect the environment are exposed in its sourcing of various fresh products from Israel when these very products can be sourced locally in South Africa or the African continent. For example, South Africa’s fig industry includes approximately 10 farmers, in the Karoo town of Prince Albert, that are responsible for exporting over 100 metric tons of figs annually including organic figs. In this regard Woolworths’ importing of figs from Israel is in contravention of the goals of the National Development Plan, South Africa’s agricultural policy as well as the protection of our environment and climate.
Furthermore, it would seem that Woolworths claims regarding environmental sustainability does not support the South African agricultural and green economy given its importing of figs that could be sourced locally or from the African continent (reducing transport distance and carbon footprint).
Woolworths has failed to answer whether it sources produce from Israeli companies that utilize the water infrastructure provided by Israel’s primary water supplier, Mekorot. Mekorot is intimately involved in the illegal supplying of water to the illegal Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank, which is well documented and not disputed by the company. Mekorot’s involvement in Israel’s unlawful occupation and its discriminatory water policies is so entrenched and perverse that international companies have terminated their commercial relationships with Mekorot in line with the BDS call. An example is the Dutch company Vitens that terminated its relationship with Mekorot in 2013.
EDUCATION AND CHILDREN
As South Africans, education is an exceptionally important issue to us and the advancement of quality education of young people from South Africa to Palestine and beyond is certainly important. In your intended collaboration with Woolworths, Woolworths has indicated that it is committed to education. However, it has ignored the pleas of South Africa’s largest school-learner organisation in the country, the Congress of South African Students (COSAS) for Woolworths to stop its trade with Israeli entities. As you may have been informed by now, COSAS supports the #BoycottWoolworths campaign and has rejected your collaboration with Woolworths. COSAS has in recent weeks mobilized thousands of its school children members at anti-Woolworths and anti-Pharrell protests (see here: http://palsolidarity.org/2015/
The Palestinian Student Campaign for Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (PSCABI) has also supported the #BoycottWoolworths campaign and the call for you not to collaborate with Woolworths as its continued trade with Israeli entities is a tacit endorsement of Israel’s anti-education and anti-children policies towards Palestinians including the arrest, torture and murder of Palestinian children and the assault on Palestinian schools.
Last year, the number of Palestinian children killed by Israel was the third-highest number of children killed by any country. Independently verified reports found that Israel killed more than 500 Palestinian children in Gaza alone – Israeli killed a child every 3 hours for 50 days. Approximately 1000 Palestinian children were left permanently disabled by Israel in 2014. More than 260 schools were damaged by Israeli rocket airstrikes last year, including three public schools that were destroyed entirely and 23 that were “severely damaged.” 274 Palestinian kindergartens were damaged by Israel in 2014. And this same Israel (which has killed and maimed so many children) is the country that Woolworths is defending its trade with while simultaensouly attempting to suggest that it is interested in promoting the uplifment of children. Both South African school learners and Palestinian students have called on you not to collaborate with Woolworth till it ends its Israeli trade. We hope if nothing else you heed the calls made by these young people.
If you are truly committed to the pursuit of happiness of all people, as we think you are, we strongly urge you to reconsider your collaboration Woolworths. A true commitment to the pursuit of happiness for all people irrespective of their ethnicity, culture, religion, race, language, gender and sexual orientation requires, in the words of Ban Ki Moon, “working to end conflict, poverty and other unfortunate conditions in which so many of our fellow human beings live”.
By refusing to collaborate with Woolworths at this stage, or postponing your collaboration with Woolworths until such time that it ceases its trade with Israeli entities, or making your collaboration with Woolworths conditional on it undertaking to sourcing its products ethically and not from countries such as Israel, you will have taken a concrete action towards working to end the unfortunate conditions the Palestinians are currently forced to live under.
We would prefer not to burden you and overshadow your presence in South Africa with protests, demonstrations, vigils and other protest actions. We do not believe that you (or Woolworths) would want to be welcomed to South Africa by pictures of the child-victims of the Israeli regime at Oliver Tambo International Airport in Johannesburg. We know that many people are very fond of your music and it would be regrettable if your fans would need to choose between you and human rights – as many have already begun to indicate they are doing, choosing human rights.
While we value the right to protest, we equally value the need to have dialogue. We are of the view that given your work with the United Nations Foundation you are keenly aware of the need to collaborate to work towards an end to human suffering and a just world for all people. Accordingly, if you are so inclined, we would appreciate a meeting with you to further discuss the boycott of Israel, the #BoycottWoolworths campaign and the larger interconnected human rights issues. We are prepared to meet with you at any global location of your choice.
We trust that you will seriously consider our request and that your decision will reflect your commitment to the pursuit of happiness for all people.
BDS South Africa Spokesperson