South Africa

Maverick Life, South Africa

In pictures: BDS vs. Pharrell Williams

In pictures: BDS vs. Pharrell Williams

It’s a funny thing about South Africans: when protests turn violent, everyone is horrified – as is, of course, appropriate – but when they don’t, there’s a peculiar sense of deflation, as though someone turned the sound down. Monday’s BDS protest against the Woolworths/ Pharrell Williams concert at GrandWest had been anxiously anticipated, but it ran as smoothly as an airline lunch, leaving a slightly baffled tone in some of the headlines. MARELISE VAN DER MERWE was there with her camera.

The protest, on the whole, was a fairly festive affair. MC and spokesperson Kwara Kekana kept a running stream of one-liners coming from 4pm onwards, complete with a series of dance-off competitions and a number of musical performances. South African musician Tumi Molekane also joined the protestors.


At one point, the #PharrellProtest was #1 trending on Twitter in South Africa, said Kekana.

It came to a fairly subdued end, however, with an icy wind dampening spirits a little. The crowd had been hoping to give the Grammy-winning musician a “proper welcome”, as Kekana put it, but Williams had, perhaps unsurprisingly, not come into the venue through the main gate. By the time the protest came to its scheduled end and the concert began, Williams had not yet been spotted.



BDS has issued a statement earlier in the day stating clearly that no illegal or unconstitutional activity would be tolerated. “Members of the community can be assured that this protest event is well organised, it is going ahead and we will do so in a lawful and dignified manner,” the statement read. Planning included water sachets, neon glow-sticks, face-paint, and “cultural groups and artists”.


A number of police cars and Cosatu marshals were in attendance throughout.


According to the statement, no violence, hate speech, anti-Semitism, anti-Zionism or any other form of racism would be tolerated. (The group has previously been accused of anti-Semitism by critics. Several speakers mentioned favouring solidarity between religious groups, including Judaism. However, there were a few rallying calls of “down with Zionism”).


The Cape High Court ruled on Saturday that the City of Cape Town’s decision to limit the protest to 150 people was unconstitutional, and BDS said over the weekend that it was expecting up to 40,000 people.

Woolworths issued a statement shortly after the protest to confirm that the protest had gone peacefully, and said that there had been around 350 people. At Daily Maverick’s estimation, the number was closer to 1,000.


Photo: The crowd was not 40,000, but it wasn’t 350 either.

Large numbers of ANC members were present in the crowd, as well as the SACP. There were also several school learners, as well as some children and toddlers. According to BDS, organisations represented included the NC4P, MJC, BDS SA, ANC, ANCYL, ANCWL, SACP, SASCO, COSAS, YCL SA, IPSA, SESKHONA, EE, UF, OSS, JVP, PSC, KZN PSF, Polokwane 4 BDS, UCT MSA, SJC, UWC PSF, AFP, KAIROS, Cosatu and a number of individual trade unions.

Familiar faces included the ANC Youth League’s Muhammad Khalid Sayed, who called for the parent party to increase pressure on Israel. People’s Rights Movement leader Andile Lili, meanwhile, urged protestors to take to the streets if US President Barack Obama ever came back to South Africa.


Photo: Andile Lili


Photo: Kwara Kekana and Marius Fransman.

Other tough critics were Reverend Edwin Arrison of the National Coalition for Palestine, who called for sustained pressure on Woolworths. “Even if it takes ten years, this will not stop. We did not get our freedom within one year,” he said. “When Steve Biko died in ’77, we did not get our freedom within one year.

“This time we will not stand while the Palestinian people are being oppressed… their struggle is also our struggle. Madiba said we will not be free until Palestine is free…. This protest will continue, it will grow until you stop trading with those who murder children on the beaches of Gaza.”

Woolworths had not been singled out, he said – it was only the first in a chain of targets. “We are starting with Woolworths and will pursue this until we get to victory,” he said. “Once we get there we will pursue all the others as well.”

He had some choice words for a handful of politicians as well. “Bantu Holomisa, we are ashamed of you; you go to Palestine,” he said. “We are ashamed of you, Terror Lekota, you are not coping. Don’t go in our name, you are not speaking on our behalf. You can’t sell your soul for thirty pieces of silver.

“Don’t tell me we are supposed to talk only and start some kind of dialogue. Our people have been talking for years. Peace does not mean peace. It means they steal pieces of our land. They want to keep us talking until there is no more Palestine left.”


Photo: Muhammed Desai, BDS National Co-ordinator.

Also putting politicians on the chopping block was Terry Crawford Browne, who asked: “Patricia de Lille, have you sold your soul to Woolworths?”


Photo: The protest came to a muted and very chilly end.

Asked what their next steps would be, BDS did not respond before deadline.

Daily Maverick asked Woolworths a number of specific questions as well, including whether the company intended to engage further with BDS and what, if any, measurable impact the boycott campaign had had on sales, customer loyalty or any other areas the organisation may have surveyed. We received the following response:

“Woolworths respects the constitutional rights of protestors to express their views lawfully without infringing the right of others.

“We have received a great response to the #PharrellwithWoolies campaign with Pharrell Williams. It’s very clear that the vast majority of South Africans understand and support its purpose as being to raise the profile of issues pertinent to South Africa, namely better education through our MySchool programme and creating a more environmentally aware next generation to preserve South Africa’s resources. 

“Big Concerts, who are the promoters of our Pharrell concerts, has extensive experience in managing events of this type and the health and safety of concert attendees is their primary concern.” Tickets had been selling exceptionally well, spokesperson Kirsten Hewett said. DM


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