Durban - South Africa’s retail giants have been dragged into the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Local organisations supporting the Palestinian cause are rallying behind an international movement – Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) – urging people not to buy goods made in Israel.
They have targeted Pick n’ Pay, Shoprite and Woolworths and urged consumers not to buy certain items from the chain stores.
However the retailers do not want to be dragged into the Middle East situation and do not believe they are doing anything illegal.
Muhammed Desai, the local coordinator for BDS, said the group was calling for an end to the occupation of Palestinian territories, the right of Palestinians living abroad to return home and equality for Palestinians living Israel.
He said BDS had already engaged with local businesses, including Woolworths and Pick n Pay about them stocking Israeli products. “We are calling on Woolworths and Pick n Pay to get rid of products made in Israel. We want Woolworths to stop selling fruit and vegetables from Israel.” said Desai.
Woolworths, Pick n Pay and Shoprite released statements in response. “The vast majority of our food is sourced locally, more than 95%. We source a very small amount of food abroad. Less than 0.1% of our food is sourced from the Middle East and Israel,” read a statement from Woolworths. “We only source food abroad – in accordance with government regulations – when local products are out of season. These products are labelled in accordance with the law (including the Consumer Protection Act).
We fully respect our customers’ right to make individual purchasing choices, for this reason, we make sure to highlight where each product comes from on our labels.”
David North Head of Corporate and Group Strategy at Pick n Pay said the company’s trade with Israel was minimal.
“Pick n Pay is guided by South African government policy on which countries with which to trade. Well over 90% of our products are sourced from within South Africa. We do import a few products, mainly when South African products are out of season. Purchases from Israel represent a minuscule percentage, as do imports from other countries, for example Pakistan and Syria,” he said.
“We support all sectors of South African society across all religious and cultural groups. For example, we have been strong and loyal supporters of both Gift of the Givers and the Mustafadin Foundation, and have donated substantially over the years to both organisations.”
Sarita Van Wyk, Shoprite’s corporate communications manager, said Shoprite was an independent business enterprise and as such the company was not partial to any political regime, religion, race, language or culture.
“Shoprite also respects and supports consumers’ right to choose what products they wish to buy and the supermarket group therefore complies with applicable labelling regulations by including manufacturer and country of origin for all imported products, to assist consumers in making informed decisions,” she said in a statement.
Desai was one of several speakers at a march attended by thousands. Estimates vary widely from between 5 000 to 50 000.
The protest march, hosted by the KZN Palestine Solidarity Forum, formed part of a broader national and international campaign condemning Israel’s bombardment of Gaza. It started on July 8 and to date more than 900 Palestinians have died as well as 30 Israeli soldiers and some civilians.
In South Africa protests also took place in Johannesburg, Cape Town, Kimberly, Katlehong, Laudium, Nelspruit, Newcastle, Polokwane, Port Elizabeth and Pretoria on Friday and over the weekend.
At City Hall, where Friday’s protest march in Durban converged, various political leaders and activists addressed the crowd, a number of them drawing comparisons between apartheid South Africa and the Israeli regime.
Durban mayor James Nxumalo told the gathering that Durban stood with the people of Palestine.
Before the the march, Cardinal Wilfried Napier of the Roman Catholic Church, made a historic visit to the Grey Street Jummah Musjid, where he delivered a message of peace and urged religious leaders to stand against violence on both sides of the Israel-Palestinian conflict.
It was the first time a Catholic leader had addressed a Friday prayer congregation in the 100 year history of the landmark mosque.
Speaking on behalf of the KZN Inter-religious Council (IRC), Napier said: “This is a very emotional situation and one that has been incorrectly presented as a conflict of faith rather than a dispute between two nations.
“As people of faith we reject the use of religion as a mechanism for perpetrating violence. Violence in any form is abhorrent and we urge a speedy and immediate end to the human suffering being experienced in Gaza and Israel,” he said.
“The longer this conflict continues the more it will harden the hearts of those involved.”
The South African Zionist Federation (SAZF) has opposed the severing of any ties with Israel and the boycott campaign.
“We’re against it of course, but everyone is entitled to their opinion... its their right,” said vice chairman for the federation Ben Swartz.
“In South African we should be looking for a solution to the problem not alienating and polarising. The BDS campaign is based on hate... it is clear that these people are not concerned with solving the problem. We believe that people should sit down and get to a solution.”
Next Sunday the SAZF will hold a solidarity march for Israel in Linksfield Johannesburg. “We are expecting between 10 and 20 000 people – not just Jewish but across the spectrum. It’s part of everyone’s right to voice their opinions.”
Meanwhile South African envoys Zola Skweyiya and Aziz Pahad were expected to arrive in the Middle East today to add their voices to the international chorus calling for an end to the war in Gaza.
On Friday night Hamas and Israel had agreed to a 12 hour humanitarian ceasefire which expired late on Saturday.