When the Woolworths board meets on 26 November, their discussions will be about much more than the usual things such as profits and sustainability. They will also be talking about a concerted campaign against the company because of its perceived support for Israel and its trade links with Israeli companies. By RYLAND FISHER.
It’s going to be no ordinary meeting. For starters, while they are meeting inside their head office in Cape Town, there are bound to be hundreds of protesters outside the building trying to make sure that the “suits” in the boardroom take the “correct” decision.
The campaign against Woolworths – launched by the group called Boycotts, Divestment and Sanctions South Africa (BDS-SA) – is aimed at generating support for the people of Palestine who have suffered at the hands of the Israeli state.
The campaign has involved several flash protests at Woolworths stores over the past few weeks.
But the BDS campaign took an ugly turn in recent weeks with some members of the Congress of South African Students (Cosas) – the ANC-aligned organisation aimed at high school learners – placing pigs’ heads in what they thought was the kosher section of a Woolworths store in Cape Town.
It later emerged that the pigs’ heads were actually left in the halaal section of the store, which meant that Cosas was not only accused of being anti-Semitic, but also upset the Muslim community, many of who support the Palestinian people because of a common religion.
The actions by the students have drawn wide outrage from all quarters of society, including some Muslim organisations. Muslims, like Jews, resent pigs. What has been unclear is who has taken ownership of the pig’s head protest, with even Cosas’ national leadership attempting to distance themselves from it. BDS itself has made vague noises about not supporting the protest but understanding why it happened.
The latest condemnation came last week from the leadership of the Claremont Mosque, who said that “such distasteful and ill-conceived protest tactics do not serve to advance the cause of the Palestinian solidarity movement in South Africa and the Boycotts, Divestment and Sanctions Campaign in particular.
“Our campaigns and solidarity in support of the Palestinian people are aimed at defending and upholding the dignity and human rights of all Palestinians, irrespective of whether they are Muslim, Christian or Jewish.”
They pointed out that the struggle of the Palestinian people was one of a colonised people against a coloniser and should not be reduced to a religious battle.
All of this might be a bit difficult for the leaders of Cosas to understand. Some of the Cosas leaders, while trying hard not to apologise for their actions, have in fact threatened to do it all again if Woolworths does not withdraw its apparent support for Israel by no longer stocking Israeli products.
It is easy to dismiss the actions of the Cosas members as those of a few hot-headed youngsters. Rash actions are, after all, what we expect from young people who would feel that they have nothing to lose through their protests. But it could have been dangerous if they achieved popular support for their actions which, it appears, they were not able to do.
One of the lessons of any campaign (political or otherwise) is to make sure that you always hold the moral high ground. Those who opposed Apartheid held the moral ground because it was an immoral system.
Cosas has potentially done irreparable damage to the Palestinian cause through their protests, which appeared to have been aimed at generating publicity without thinking through the potential consequences.
The BDS campaign has often played on the divisions between particularly Muslims and Jews and has the potential to exacerbate an already tense situation. It is of course easy to portray all Muslims as being supportive of the Palestinians and all Jews to be supportive of Israel, just like it would have been easy in the Apartheid days to assume that all blacks opposed Apartheid while all whites supported apartheid.
The truth is that there are many Jews and Christians who are supportive of the Palestinian struggle, in the same way as there were many whites who supported the South African struggle against Apartheid.
Woolworths have retaliated to BDS and Cosas by condemning the violence and loss of life, saying that they stock very few Israeli products that are clearly labelled for customers to make the choices that they feel comfortable with. (According to Woolworths, currently only two products, pretzels and figs, are sourced from Israel.) They said that only 0,1 percent of their products are sourced from Israel.
Woolworths is being singled out for a boycott while there is a perception among some observers that other retail companies’ supposed transgressions could possibly be bigger.
They believe that a boycott is likely to hit their local suppliers who provide them with more than 95 percent of the goods they sell.
Late last week Woolworths applied for a court interdict to halt protests inside their stores. This interdict is set to be heard on 25 November, a day before the board meeting.
“The unlawful protest actions inside our stores have had a profound effect on many of our employees and customers. We respect the right of BDS to protest, but we are seeking to prevent protests inside our stores,” said Paula Disberry, Group Director Retail Operations at Woolworths.
The answer to why Woolworths has been singled out is quite simple and could be found in a textbook on political activism 101, if it existed. While activists are always quick to quote Amilcar Cabral’s “Tell no lies, claim no easy victories”, everyone knows that one builds activists campaigns based on easy victories which could hopefully build up to bigger victories.
It is easier to target one retail supermarket chain than to target all of them at the same time. You need to give your supporters alternatives. It would therefore be silly to call for a boycott of all the supermarket chains at the same time.
The argument seems to be that one starts with Woolworths, before targeting the other supermarket chains, one at a time.
The other reason why BDS could have chosen Woolworths is because it is aimed at a bit more of an upmarket audience than the other retail chains. The thinking could be that it is easier if your target is aimed at the middle class while you draw most of your supporters from among the working class.
There is also a perception that the company has Jewish leadership and/or owners, something that might have been true a few years ago, but has changed along with the rest of South African society in recent years, especially at a management level.
One of the big shareholders in Woolworths is the Public Investment Corporation, a private investment firm that is wholly owned by the South African government with the Minister of Finance as the shareholder’s representative.
The PIC’s mandate is to grow the money entrusted to it by making shrewd investments. They are not necessarily driven by political considerations but more by commercial considerations as a supposedly private entity.
Even within government there appears to be divisions about whether or not they should support the BDS campaign, because of government’s complex relationship with Israel. Many government departments do have reasonably decent relationships with their Israeli counterparts.
Woolworths could legitimately feel that they are being targeted, fairly or unfairly. But the reality is that they are being targeted.
How do they deal with this situation?
BDS has called for a meeting with the Woolworths leadership in what could be perceived as an attempt to resolve the issue. But it is not so simple. The BDS agenda has never been about resolving the issue with Woolworths. Rather, it has always been about generating as much publicity as possible for the Palestinian cause.
It is in their interest for Woolworths to stand firm against them because it will give them a greater excuse to expedite their protest. Even if the Woolworths leadership agrees to a meeting, there is no doubt that BDS will use it to show that their campaign has been successful.
In a situation like this, where the battle lines have been clearly drawn, it might be useful to call in mediators who can act as a go-between behind the scenes for the different players involved, even though BDS is unlikely to favour such a solution. Their aim will always be to extract as much political mileage as possible. That is part of their raison d’être.
The more the battle is fought in the public eye, the more BDS stands to benefit because they are driven by the desire for publicity.
Woolworths, as they say in the classics, is caught between a rock and hard place. They might find that, in order to take the heat off them, they might have to sacrifice the little business that they say they do with Israeli companies.
It does not do much for a competitive business environment but nothing about the Israeli/Palestinian situation has ever been normal in the true sense of the word.
Of course, as far as BDS is concerned, it will just mean that the pressure that they put on Woolworths will now be transferred to another target. DM
Photo: The Woolworths logo is seen on the wall of a shopping mall in Johannesburg June 19, 2014. REUTERS/Rogan Ward