Woolworths boycott: When only Israeli figs are sweet enough

29 November 2014 - 19:41 By Chris Barron

Victim or Villain? Woolworths is not breaking the law by using Israeli suppliers, says senior executive

Woolworths says the government has been inconsistent and has not provided clear leadership around the issue of trade with Israel.

"A clear statement from government would be helpful," said senior executive Paula Disberry, who, as head of retail operations, has borne the brunt of the four-month boycott campaign against Woolworths.

"There have been inconsistent statements made within the government."

Legislation clearly allows trade with Israel, but senior government ministers, notably Blade Nzimande, have openly supported the boycott campaign, as have alliance partners Cosatu and the SACP . Adding to these mixed messages is the fact that the Public Investment Corporation, which invests the pensions of government employees, is a major Woolworths shareholder, with 16.3% of its shares.

Disberry said more support from the government would be "helpful in the circumstances", given that what Woolworths was doing was entirely legal and that damaging its ability to do business was not in the country's interests.

It's a "proudly South African company" that employed 30000 South Africans and whose suppliers employed double that number, she said.

A boycott against Woolworths was a boycott against South African agriculture and South African retail.

"The legislation is clear and that is what we're adhering to. As long as legislation permits trade with companies in Israel, Woolworths is perfectly within its rights to source from Israeli suppliers."

She thinks businesses that operate legally and contribute to the economy are entitled to expect better leadership from the government in situations such as this.

Woolworths thinks it is being used as a "vehicle" for a much bigger agenda than sourcing a handful of products from suppliers in Israel.

"We feel there are bigger fish to fry in the world than us and our suppliers."

The value of trade between Woolworths and its Israeli suppliers is less than R12-million.

"It's an incredibly small number, so I can only imagine that this is about political point scoring."

Woolworths went to court to get an interdict against the boycott, although figures released this week suggest that it has had a negligible impact on sales.


The National Coalition for Palestine released its own figures, apparently based on the number of people who have tweeted their support for the campaign, which it says show that the boycott has cost Woolworths R8-million a month. Disberry said this was nonsense.

So why the need for an interdict?

The threats and intimidation of customers and staff were becoming unacceptable, she said. Woolworths supported people's constitutional right to protest as long as they kept their distance. By coming into its stores and intimidating customers and staff and interrupting trade, they were breaking the law.

"That is what was happening on frequent occasions. We therefore sought protection from the courts, particularly as we run up to the peak holiday season and Christmas when our stores become busy and the tempers of our customers become short. We were seriously concerned about the conflict that might result from that."

The Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions group announced after the interdict was granted that it would "intensify" its campaign as the festive season approached.

"If they continue to enter our stores, they will be in contempt of court," said Disberry.

She denied that sourcing from a country that bombed civilians (in Gaza) conflicted with Woolworths's self-proclaimed image as an "ethical retailer".

"Our relationship is with entities that have been independently audited and only operate within Israel, not the occupied territories."

But Israel bombs civilians?

"There are issues in many places in the world these days. All that we can do is follow the leadership of our government and South African and international legislation. We feel it would be entirely inappropriate to take any position ahead of legislation."

Woolworths had fully complied with legislation about labelling to allow customers to make choices "according to their values and their beliefs", she said.

Is it worth going to war over figs and pretzels, which could be sourced elsewhere?

"It's the principle of the thing. There are many areas of our business which certain groups or individuals have views about. It would set an incredibly dangerous precedent for us and for retailing and industry in general in South Africa if we bowed to this pressure. We can't be seen to bow to every pressure group that comes along, otherwise why are we here as a commercial operation?"

Besides which, Woolworths has customers who demand the kind of figs and pretzels that only Israel can provide, and they have rights too. As for ethics, Woolworths ensured its suppliers around the world met the highest employment and environmental standards.

"We make sure we trade with entities that are doing the right thing. And that is the space we feel we should be occupying, not making decisions that are outside that remit."

So it is concerned about the ethics of suppliers but not of governments? "We have to remain apolitical. We source from all over the world across our food, clothing and general merchandise businesses. There are ethical and political issues in all of them. We would have no place to go. We have influence over suppliers, we don't have influence over governments."