The recent decision by the Congress of South African Students (COSAS) to place a pig’s head in what was assumed to be the kosher section of Woolworths, and then, in fact, turned out to be the halal section, could be written off as a mere “fail of the week.”
But it is indicative of a far more serious and insidious politics being cultivated by Boycott. Divestment. Sanctions-South Africa (BDS-SA) who have proved unable and unwilling to run a disciplined and ethical campaign in solidarity with Palestinians.
Placing a pig’s head in what was thought to be the kosher section of a shop was a crude act that will inevitably be read as anti-Semitic by many different people.
Every time Palestinian solidarity is framed in terms potentially read as anti-Semitic real damage is done to the Palestinian cause. Therefor one would expect an immediate and principled response to the COSAS debacle from any progressive organisation in solidarity with the Palestinian struggle.
However this was not the case. Rather than an outright condemnation from BDS-SA, who reportedly re-tweeted comments from COSAS, only to delete them later, they chose to release a statement that was a mere gesture towards mild disagreement.
The statement distanced BDS-SA from the incident but also stated that “[d]espite discouraging this method of applying pressure (by placing pig heads in Woolworths Stores), we also recognize that this radical action was probably done with the good intention of helping the people of Palestine and as an expression of the increasing frustration against Woolworths by South African young people”.
BDS-SA went on to use the occasion to further pressurise Woolworths, and pointed to their failure to meet with representatives of the boycott campaign as reason for the COSAS action. This failure to take a principled position, and to reject the action by COSAS outright, was, unfortunately, not an altogether surprising response.
This bizarre displacement of responsibility for what, to say the least, was not a well -considered campaign ‘tactic,’ comes after BDS-SA national co-ordinator Muhammed Desai’s blunder last year when he condoned the singing of ‘Shoot the Jew’ at an anti-Israeli protest at Wits University.
Unsurprisingly, Israeli state apologists seized on this to delegitimise the wider BDS movement. Desai never publicly apologised, and after five days of public outrage, the Board of BDS-SA released a statement distancing themselves from Desai’s comments, but ignored calls for his resignation. To date, there has been no serious consideration of the kind of ‘tactics’ being used by BDS-SA, or the organisations they have chosen as their allies.
BDS (International) principles require that international solidarity with Palestinian rights be rooted in the principles of equality, justice and freedom. These principles are meant to be rooted in non-racialism, and in solidarity with all people, especially local people who face oppression every day. BDS-SA does not conform to these principles.
There have now been two major incidents in which it has not taken a clear and principled distance from gross expressions of anti-Semitism. Furthermore, instead of working with oppressed people in struggle in South Africa, it is closely affiliated to various organisations linked to President Jacob Zuma’s authoritarian and corrupt government. Affiliation to a state that at times acts with mortal violence against its own citizens, as we witnessed at Marikana in 2012, as well as many other incidents of state repression across the country, stands in stark contrast to the principles espoused by BDS International.
It is for these reasons that the Rhodes University Palestinian Solidarity Forum (RUPSF) decided to cut out the bottom strip of organisational endorsements and sponsors from the Israeli Apartheid Week (IAW) posters this year.
We hoped that through this act we could demonstrate our refusal to ally with some of the organisations that have endorsed BDS-SA and IAW. Perhaps the most apt example of this is the inclusion of the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) whose reputation has been irreparably damaged by its response to mineworkers in Marikana in the last two years.
An oversight such as this is unacceptable for any organisation involved in a human rights campaign. BDS-SA is allowing itself to be used by the ANC and its allied organisations for their own political expediency, which is not linked to any direct action or real solidarity efforts with Palestine.
If the ANC government were genuinely committed to the global BDS campaign they would have cut trade links with Israel and divested completely. But they continue to trade with Israel and continue to host the Israeli ambassador, while pretending that they are in support of BDS as a tactic.
BDS-SA is providing progressive cover to a repressive government that, unlike Bolvia and Venezuela, is not willing to take basic steps to isolate the Israeli state.
Moreover, BDS-SA itself is performing a half-baked attempt at a political campaign. Like pop-up-opinionistas in the fashionable world of online columnists today, it assumes that one can take on an issue of great importance like Palestine and promote the cause while draining it of its political potency to make is palatable to ‘everyone’.
Woolworths is a palatable target for BDS-SA. Not only does it have the ability to make middle-class people feel as if they are performing meaningful acts in their malls, but it fails to challenge the agents of the ongoing oppression and dispossession of Palestinians.
It is true that Woolworths issued a pathetic response to the #boycottwoolworths call. But it is still unclear why this company should be boycotted over other big retailers who also stock Israeli goods like Checkers, Dischem, Pick ‘n’ Pay, etc. especially when, according toWoolworths, their Israeli stock accounts for less than 0.1% of their goods.
Earlier this year, customers were called upon to boycott Woolworths and Pick ‘n’ Pay. We should be more than concerned that the two companies targeted are predominantly Jewish-owned. The boycott against Pick ’n’ Pay was dropped after it released a statement addressed specifically to the South African Muslim community. The statement spoke specifically to the Muslim community because solidarity with Palestine is often, incorrectly, read as a matter of religious affiliation.
While BDS-SA in theory runs a secular campaign, their campaigns are often inflected with religious, cultural, and racial mystifiers. There are often reports of serious religious bias from people who have attended BDS-SA marches in Durban and Cape Town. When these incidents occur they are, like this latest incident, not strongly condemned by BDS–SA.
Instead, BDS-SA often chooses to ignore the uncomfortable truths about their campaigns and their allies. If BDS-SA does not want a repeat of the incident last week the organisation needs to start doing the hard work of building a principled campaign rooted in universal notions of justice and freedom.
If BDS-SA was serious about running a boycott campaign that would have real consequences for Israel, why not choose a target that is directly linked to violence and repression in the West Bank and Gaza and also in South Africa, like Group 4 Securicor (G4S)?
G4S is a private security company that plays a key role in Israel’s occupation of Gaza and the West Bank, providing security services and equipment to Israeli prisons, checkpoints, the “Apartheid Wall”, and the Israeli military and police.
While G4S´s role in sustaining the Israeli Occupation is well known to people who follow BDS and is on the boycott list amongst many other companies who support the state of Israel, it has not been elevated to the level of public visibility that its actions warrant and it is certainly disproportionate to the kind of campaigning being done against Woolworths by BDS-SA.
G4S also has a direct link to the everyday repression faced by the dispossessed in South Africa. In 2008, Thokozani Mkhotli from the Arnett Drive shack settlement in Reservoir Hills in Durban, was shot and wounded by a Securicor guard. The guard, who used live ammunition, was part of a group sent to disconnect people from electricity and dig up their electrical cables.
Targeting and effectively boycotting G4S in South Africa would not only be an acknowledgement of the way in which Securicor is routinely used by local government to violently disconnect people from electricity in the shack-settlements in Durban, it would also involve acknowledging the horrific stories that emerged after the riots at the G4S –controlled Mangaung prison last year.
The Mail&Guardian published a report based on a 12- month long investigation by the Wits Justice Project, which found that “G4S staff allegedly used electroshocks excessively and forcibly injected inmates with antipsychotic drugs”.
Inmates also reported having been locked up in their cells for long periods that ranged from 23 hours a day to a whole week. Others were forced into solitary confinement for long periods as ‘punishment’, without access to lawyers or medical personnel.
G4S is the kind of company that embodies the violent repression and torture that Palestinians face under Israeli occupation, and dispossessed South Africans face under the new authoritarianism of the ANC.
G4S is the kind of target that should be at the centre of the kind of campaign that links oppression and violence across space and time and seeks to build real solidarity.
We are doing more harm than good to the Palestinian cause if we refuse to be principled and ethical in our campaigns.
When we speak of Palestine, we are speaking about nothing less than decolonisation, a process, as Frantz Fanon noted in 1961, that “never takes place unnoticed, for it influences individuals and modifies them fundamentally. It transforms spectators crushed with their inessentiality into privileged actors, with the grandiose glare of history’s floodlights upon them. It brings a natural rhythm into existence, introduced by new men, and with it a new language and a new humanity”.
There is no sign of a ‘new language’ in BDS-SA. It is clear that the old reactionary language of lazy hypocrisy has come to dominate its actions. Actions like condoning songs like “Shoot the Jew,” refusing to take a clear distance from the attempt to place a pig’s head in the kosher section of a food shop or partnering with the SACP and NUM, organisations that appeared to endorse the massacre of striking miners in South Africa.
This reveals a serious lack of political principle. BDS-SA is contributing towards, and not opposing, the increasingly thuggish, anti-intellectual and generally dubious political culture developing in a South Africa. Desai alone cannot be responsible for this.
BDS-SA has a board of directors. BDS-SA has a list of supporters, affiliates and campaigners.Where are they in this debate? The struggle for freedom and equality is one that, while transcending border and contexts, in an internationalist sense, must of necessity challenge injustice wherever it should find it. There is enough injustice in South Africa for us to know that if you are aligning yourself with the people responsible for oppression here, then you cannot do any good for the people who are suffering over there.
Main Photograph: A shelled-out building following Israel’s bombing of Gaza earlier this year – by Eloise Bollack