Performative neutrality is lip service without humanity

South Africans who lived under apartheid might remember former US president Ronald Reagan’s reluctance to divest from and sanction the apartheid state, saying it would hurt black South Africans. One of the anti-apartheid movement’s biggest contributions to future activist movements was its normalisation of divestment as an activist strategy, yet while we know Reagan and the apartheid state of South Africa were very much in bed with each other and he didn’t care much for the people of this country, divestment and sanctions were pretty much agreed upon because of pressure from the people. A business decision, if you will. 

Woolworths made a statement this past week saying it was forced to withdraw its Israeli pearl couscous from its shelves after it received “credible” threats about protests and a consumer boycott. #BoycottWoolworths by the Africa4Palestine movement, which had launched the campaign to force Woolworths to stop selling Israeli products, had raised fears of putting staff and customers at risk. It was not a decision to support the people of Palestine, nor was it in condemnation of the genocide being perpetrated by Israel. It was a business decision. 

“Despite reports commending us for taking a pro-Palestinian or anti-Israeli position – we have not,” Woolworths said in a statement. “Woolworths would like to explicitly affirm that we neither support nor boycott anyone. Woolworths has no political affiliations and does not support any political party, organisation or country.”

A coward’s way out, really. 

The movement advocating for divestment from Israel has swiftly emerged as one of the fastest-growing campaigns in recent history, drawing support from a diverse range of backers. Nevertheless, the persistent contradictions between divestment and self-interest remain a focal point, fueling debates between proponents and opponents. These discussions often revolve around issues of efficiency, feasibility, and the ethical implications of engaging with a state accused of practising apartheid. While these considerations are undeniably crucial, it is equally important to broaden our perspective and delve into the inherent ethical contradictions within capitalism. This exploration can provide valuable insights into strategies for fostering meaningful change.

It’s not the first time Woolworths has been embroiled in the business of stocking Israeli products. There was a countrywide boycott of Woolworths in 2014, which included protests outside its stores to stop stocking products, particularly tomatoes, pretzels, figs, pomegranates, couscous, matzos, coriander, litchis, plums, mangoes and other fresh produce, from the occupational state. It resulted in a court-ordered stop to the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement organising and encouraging protests against Woolworths. The 2015 annual general meeting shareholder report states that sales related to Israeli products represent less than 0.1% of total sales and did not note any resolutions from its meeting with BDS South Africa. To put that into perspective, 0.1% of the total revenue of R39.94 billion is over R3.9 million. 

The company also noted that it “does not source from the occupied territories”. The company says that due to the size of this part of the business, proper and comprehensive investigation and/or due diligence to ensure that the Israeli goods that it is sourcing are not tainted by Israel’s discriminatory policies have not received separate consideration but is “subject to the same rigorous procedures as applied to all sources”.

Also in 2015, the issue of Woolworths hiring G4S as its security firm was raised. The question posed in the minutes of the AGM alluded to G4S’s complicity in human rights violations.

“At the last AGM, Mr Ngumeni, the Chief Operating Officer of Woolworths, confirmed that Woolworths is comfortable with the services provided by G4S despite allegations of violating human rights in the occupied territories. G4S is directly implicated in providing services and equipment to the Israeli state in respect of its operations in the occupied territories. Therefore, G4S directly profits from Israel’s unlawful occupation.” However, the company responded: “We are a values-driven business with codified ethical sourcing principles. All suppliers are independently assessed and sign up to our Code of Business Principles. G4S, as a supplier, satisfied these principles.”

Overall, Woolworths’ attitude toward the ongoing genocide of Palestinians was thus: “Under the King Code, the Board must determine and implement policies and strategies which comply with good corporate governance and serve the best interests of the company, including in respect of strategy, risk, performance and sustainability. The Board must take a well-informed and balanced view including where there are disputes with certain shareholders and consumers. The Group has no political affiliations and is guided by the government’s guidelines in the territories in which we do business. Our trade with Israel is an insignificant proportion of our business. The Board clearly meets the standards and requirements set under the King Code.”

This is but one case study in a country where, unlike the US and the rest of the imperial core, the people are not up against the government’s unwillingness to stop supporting Israel. We are up against the private sector, which refuses to let go of its colonialist roots in the hopes of winning capitalism. 

Just this week, protests against Cape Union Mart resulted in an extremely defensive statement, claiming that the non-executive chairperson, Philip Krawitz, doesn’t donate to Israel’s army but Krawitz was honoured by Keren-Hayesod for “the preeminent fundraising organisation for Israel” in 2015 (following the assault on Gaza in 2014). He is also an active participant in the Zionist community in South Africa to advance Zionist propaganda in the country and serves at the Jewish Agency for Israel. “Philip Krawitz is a philanthropist who supports purely humanitarian projects in South Africa and Israel, in his personal capacity,” the statement reads. “He has made contributions to poverty alleviation, peace and reconciliation projects for several years, as it is his constitutional right. The Cape Union Mart Group is committed to creating and protecting jobs within South Africa.”

So while the technicality of not supporting the Israeli Occupational Forces directly might be true, the furthering of the Zionist cause in South Africa is reason enough to hit where it hurts the most; their pockets. Boycott, divestment, and sanctions mean the entire removal of an oppressive regime from the social, economic, and political landscape so that it ceases to function within the international community. 

The economic play in Woolworths’ decision and the idea behind Krawitz seeking to end protest outside Cape Union Mart through stating a technicality of not donating to the army, in particular, is not out of concern for Palestinian lives. As long as they’re making bank, the private sector does not care for the over 14,000 killed in Gaza since 7 October. 

Since the siege on Gaza began, many people have been fired from their jobs or lost contracts due to their support for Palestine. An employee at Apple working in Turkey was fired after a pro-Israel “watchdog” unearthed Natasha Dach’s Instagram post condemning Zionists for being “murderers and thieves”. The Irish Times says 26-year-old Courtney Carey was let go from her job at Wix in Ireland after she posted on social media that was proud to be Irish and to “stand in solidarity with the Palestinian people against the Israeli apartheid”. Earlier this week, Melissa Barrera was fired from her role on Scream VI and model Mia Khalifa has been terminated by Playboy, both for supporting the Palestinian people. 

The 33-year-old actress Barrera faced termination from the production of Scream VII after her Instagram post, deemed by some as antisemitic. Barrera stated, “I too come from a colonised country. Palestine will be free.” She also raised concerns about media bias, saying, “Western media only shows the other (Israeli) side. Why do they do that, I will let you deduce for yourself,” in a separate Instagram story. The production company, Spyglass, equated her stance to antisemitism, in a predictable manner, saying, “We have zero tolerance for antisemitism or the incitement of hate in any form, including false references to genocide, ethnic cleansing, Holocaust distortion, or anything that flagrantly crosses the line into hate speech.” 

How the corporate, capitalist private sector reacts to issues on human rights is hardly ever motivated by humanitarian reasons and is almost always weighed up against profits. Woolworths’ response is weak and without a backbone, choosing to stay neutral and pose the financial decision and fear of losses due to boycotts as concern for their employees and customers is frankly pathetic. Cape Union Mart’s search for plausible deniability by merely mentioning army donations is laughable. Thinly veiled lip service posing as concern for people just to evade boycotts or to pander to donors is still rooted in capitalism and the want for profit over people.