230909 Woolworths in woodmead.photo by Simphiwe Mbokazi

A boycott is the citizen’s method of imposing a trade sanction and after the Department of Trade and Industry made it clear that it would not consider trade sanctions on Israel, a group of pro-Palestine citizens have taken up the power to enact this themselves through the boycotting of Israeli products.

A trade sanction is a barrier imposed on a country’s trade to pressurise it to change its behaviour. These barriers can either be an absolute ban or part restriction of imports, and can be imposed by a single country or co-ordinated among many.

Such sanctions can be used for economic motives as retaliation to a country that has violated trade agreements. More commonly, however, they are used to make a political statement and to impose economic costs to undesired political actions.

Trade sanctions placed on South Africa by the world’s leading economies during apartheid played a vital role in cutting off wealth to the government, as part of the pressure that forced it to relinquish control.

Concerned South African citizens want the same forces to pressure Israel into relinquishing control of Palestine and its oppression of Gaza. The South African government is not as convinced. President Jacob Zuma has condemned the killing of civilians by both Israel and Hamas but so far no action has been taken against Israel.

Pro-Palestine citizens of South Africa, led by the Boycott Divestment Sanctions (BDS) movement, have turned to retailers and their current target is Woolworths. BDS is a global co-ordinated movement of organisations, trade unions, networks and NGOs who in their respective countries seek to target Israel not with violence but through economic means.

In South Africa they have organised a co-ordinated boycott of Israeli products sold by Woolworths, staging protests in and around its outlets. The choice of Woolworths is at first glance a peculiar one; less than 0.1 percent of its products are sourced from Israel, and it is not the only supplier of Israeli goods. Pick n Pay has publicly stated that it will continue selling Israeli products, as well as those that are sourced from other regions of controversy such as Syria and Pakistan.

Both retailers say they are guided by the principles set forward by the government on which countries should be traded with. The origins of products are clearly labelled and consumers are free to choose which economies they support.

The Consumer Goods Council of SA, a representative body of retailers including Shoprite, Massmart, Spar, Woolworths and Pick n Pay, says its members will not remove Israeli products from their shelves.

Sanctions and boycotts, if sufficiently co-ordinated, are an effective way of enacting change – and certainly better than the imbecilic suggestions of Tony Ehrenreich, Cosatu’s Western Cape secretary, for “eye for an eye” retaliation against Israel. Yet retailers themselves should stay apolitical.

The economics is simple: if a sufficient number of consumers feel that Israeli products should be boycotted and act on this, retailers will not be able to sell these items and will stop stocking them. If pro-Palestine groups feel strongly about this they must by all means execute their freedom to encourage other consumers to join them.

But to force a retailer to take this stand at the expense of all other consumers who do not support the same view is to manipulate the market to take the side of the minority.


Pierre Heistein is the course convener for UCT’s Applied Economics for Smart Decision Making course. Follow him on Twitter: @PierreHeistein.