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Woolworths taking its clients to court: As a WW shareholder, here’s my perspective on #BoycottWoolworths

“And you do all this for a few pretzels and pomegranates?” the journalist from The Times asked me. I do it for all those whose houses are demolished, I do it for the workmen who need to queue since 2:00 at a checkpoint, I do it for Gaza, I do it for the children who are harrassed on their way to school, I do it for the farmers whose olive trees are destroyed or whose land is confiscated, I do it because I believe in human dignity for all. I do it for justice and freedom.

The journalist wanted to know why, as a shareholder in Woolworths, I am so concerned about the national boycott of Woolworths. Click here for a link to the audio interview with The Times.

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I am indeed very concerned – as a consumer, as a concerned citizen and as a shareholder. Corporate identity, or a brand, is not about window dressing or  fancy advertising. It is about embodying the values of a company on every single level. These values should inspire staff relations and also those with clients, shareholders and all other stakeholders. The values must be visible in every detail – in products, in the service, in the advertising…..down to the state of the restrooms. Yet Woolworths chooses to take its clients (of which some are shareholders) to court!

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My statement was one of a number by concerned shareholders that was read out at a media conference in Johannesburg on 18 November 2014. I also submit it through my stockbroker to Woolworths. Thus far I have had no reply from Woolworths:

Shareholder statement by Marthie Momberg for the Woolworths Annual General Meeting on 26.11.14:

As an investor in Woolworths I am compelled to reveal my concern about the image and the ethics of the company in which I invested a considerable amount of my savings.

The Woolworths brand is increasingly questioned. Woolworths imports products such as pretzels, couscous, matzos, coriander and fruit from Israel. The real issue is not the number of Israeli products on the shelves of Woolworths, but rather the existence of contracts between Woolworths and Israeli businesses. Israel is well known for its continued, systemic violations of human rights in the occupied Palestinian territories (Gaza, the West Bank and East-Jerusalem). Peaceful, economic resistance against Israel and her partners is by no means a protest against Jews, but against a systemic regime of oppression. The boycott, divestment and sanctions campaign (BDS) is part of an international strategy similar to the one which helped to end South African apartheid. Major businesses and churches, across the globe have already implemented BDS. They did so not because they are politically driven, but for ethical reasons.

Woolworths say they are an ethical company. Woolworths’ products are of outstanding quality and are loved by South Africans. It is the result of dedication, courage and a commitment to quality. And yet, with regard to their relation with Israel Woolworths argues that they adhere to the law and need not do anything more. Ethical behaviour demands moral leadership. Laws are prerequisites that apply to everyone. It codifies practices, ideals, norms and moral values as the minimum that is required in a society, whilst ethics starts where the law ends. What would the quality of Woolworths’ products be if their business strategy simply adheres to the law and ignores going the extra mile? As shareholder I expect a consistent, reliable integrity from Woolworths. It implies responsible ethics in line with the growing international appeal for boycott, disinvestment and sanctions against Israel. South African Karstens Farms has already demonstrated ethical leadership by cutting its ties with Israeli exporter Hadiklaim. Woolworths can be the first South African retail company to take this step.

As a person who values the human dignity of all I, together with South Africans from all walks of life, support ‘the non-violent boycott against Woolworths. With our history of apartheid South Africans have a special role to play in saying no to Israel’s decades long institusionalised violations of the Palestinians. It is now our turn to express our moral support with the oppressed. As shareholder I expect Woolworths to practice what they preach and to restore trust in the business. The integrity – and the viability – of a brand has to do with values that are embodied.

As shareholders we are concerned about Woolworths’ decision to take BDS South Africa to court whilst declining a face-to-face meeting with BDS South Africa and other human rights groups.

Corporates are arguably one of society’s most potent change agents for a sustainable world and a safer, cleaner, healthier and thriving society. Woolworths is a signatory to the U.N Global Compact (UNGC), the world’s largest corporate citizenship and sustainability initiative. The UNGC is underpinned by principles derived from international instruments including the The Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The UNGC asks companies to embrace, support and enact, within their sphere of influence, a set of core values in the areas of human rights, labour standards, the environment and anti-corruption. On human rights it says: “Businesses should support and respect the protection of internationally proclaimed human rights; and make sure that they are not complicit in human rights abuses.” Woolworths has developed enormous goodwill for the company with the company’s brand and reputation being wisely crafted on good citizenship and squeaky clean values. It is for precisely these reasons that Woolworths should pay attention to BDS. Why doesn’t it?

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Alan Horwitz, a Jewish human rights activist representing a group of Jewish Woolworths shareholders said:

I represent a group of Jewish shareholders in Woolworths and I think I must explain why as Jewish South Africans we have taken a stand to support the #BoycottWoolworths campaign. Israel, as we are well aware wrongly claims to act and speak on behalf of Jewish people all over the globe and Israeli actions over the last decade have featured violations not just of international law but also of Jewish ethical structures. We say this because Jews can only flourish, like any other people, in open societies that respect human rights at an individual and at a national level.

We find though, that Israel has systematically violated the rights of not just of Palestinians but of other minorities within the borders of Israel. We have seen over the last few months an escalation of quite fascistic behavior by the Israeli government and the right wing, which forms part of that government. The Israeli provocations in Jerusalem are leading to intense conflict and of course the illegal expansion by Israel of the Jewish settlements around Jerusalem are making the possibility of a negotiated and just settlement with Palestinians almost impossible. We have to say that boycott as a nonviolent response to state oppression is a completely valid and ethical response, and that is why we support this action and the #BoycottWoolworths campaign. Woolworths and other big South African corporations in the retail sector are public companies that have a responsibility in terms of our anti apartheid stance. Many Jewish activists were prominent in the anti apartheid struggle, we must continue to show the world that as Jews we will not tolerate Israel acting in our name in a a fashion which is fascist. We wholeheartedly support this boycott campaign. The Israel-Palestine conflict is something which degenerates daily, quite literally and really is time that we as South Africans take a very firm stand. Finally in conclusion, we find that Woolworths claims to be a very ethical company, that it claims to be at the forefront of good corporate practice and that is why perhaps it makes sense for Woolworths to be the front runner in this action of terminating relations with Israel.” For comment from Mr Horwitz contact 0825128188

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The #BoycottWoolworths campaign receives wide spread attention and support from various South African Government Ministers, artists, well known personalities and anti-apartheid stalwarts. To date, the management of Woolworths has refused to meet so that this issue can be resolved.

Last year Woolworths was ranked first in the RepTrak Reputation Index survey of South African companies in 2014. It was also rated in the top three of the Sunday Times Top 100 companies for 2013 and was included in the JSE Socially Responsible Investment (SRI) index for 2013/14.

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