South African court bans BDS protests inside Woolworths

The court handed down the order just a day before the Woolworths Annual General Meeting.

A Woolworths store  (photo credit: REUTERS)
A Woolworths store
(photo credit: REUTERS)
CAPE TOWN – The Johannesburg High Court banned BDS South Africa on Tuesday from protesting in Woolworths stores.
The South African retailer, with a stock market cap of NIS 10 billion, has been involved in a long-running battle with boycott, divestment and sanctions activists over three Israeli foods that the store imports: pomegranates, figs and pretzels.
All together, Israeli products make up 0.1 percent of foods in Woolworths supermarkets.
The company, explaining why it was taking the matter to court, said the BDS campaign’s decision to ramp up its protest action left Woolworths with no other choice but to protect customers and staff, allowing them to shop and work unhindered.
“The right of BDS to assemble and protest does not extend to protest action inside Woolworths stores,” said the company in its court application.
The campaign took an ugly turn when a student body aligned with the ruling government placed pigs’ heads in what they thought was the kosher section of a Woolworths store in Cape Town last month.
It later emerged that the heads were actually in the halal section.
Jewish leaders accused the culprits of anti-Semitism.
The stunt also upset a Muslim community that generally supports boycotting Israel.
Despite initially endorsing this particular protest action via social media, embarrassed BDS leaders subsequently backtracked on supporting the act, but said they understood why it had happened.
Following the incident, the company applied for a court interdict to halt in-store protest action.
Tuesday’s court order prevents members of Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions SA (BDS SA) from organizing, coordinating or encouraging any form of protest action inside the Woolworths stores.
At the same time, the court ordered the two groups to meet face-to-face by December 10 “in an attempt to settle the entire matter.”
The court handed down the order just a day before the Woolworths Annual General Meeting.
When the Woolworths board meets on Wednesday, it will discuss the campaign it has attracted because of its perceived support for Israel and its trade links with Israeli companies.
Hundreds of protesters are expected to gather outside the Cape Town venue. On the board’s agenda is a discussion on whether or not to continue stocking Israeli products.
The head of BDS SA, Muhammed Desai, said he had bought shares in Woolworths to be able to attend the meeting and raise what he called “ethical issues.” He wants the company to terminate its relationship with Israel “until the country respects international law.” He claims that Woolworths had numerous requests for a meeting to resolve the problem, but ignored them.
Allan Horwitz, who claims to speak for Jewish shareholders in Woolworths, said at a recent press conference that because Woolworths marketed itself as an ethical company, BDS had picked it as a first target.
Some have speculated that the company’s Jewish leadership and ownership might have been another factor in groups singling it out.
Ironically, however, a big shareholder in Woolworths is the Public Investment Corporation, wholly owned by the boycott-supporting South African government.
Woolworths maintains that it has no political affiliations and that it fully complies with government guidelines on labeling products from Israel and the Middle East. It claims that no products are sourced from occupied territories, or from suppliers “based in the occupied territories.”
For now, the company has welcomed the ruling “to protect our customers and employees from unlawful BDS in-store protests.”
The BDS campaign also found a “positive development” in the ruling, saying that it looked forward to meeting with the management to make its case for Woolworths terminating trade relations with Israel.