Cape Town - Woolworths [JSE:WHL] has filed a court application against the organisation Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions Against Israel in South Africa (BDS SA) "to protect our employees and customers from increasing unlawful protests inside its stores".
BDS SA is a member of the National Coalition 4 Palestine (NC4P).
Paula Disberry, group director: retail operations at Woolworths, told Fin24 the unlawful protest actions inside its stores have had a profound effect on many of its employees and customers.
"We respect the right of BDS to protest, but we are seeking to prevent protests inside our stores. Unfortunately their campaign has extended beyond raising awareness and includes actions such as intimidation of customers and employees, restricting access and preventing customers from shopping," said Disberry, adding that products have also been damaged.
READ: Woolworths worries over staff, client safety
"The recent statements by BDS to ramp up their protest action have given us no choice but to take legal steps. It is our responsibility to ensure that our customers as well as employees feel safe in our stores,” said Disberry.
Woolworths is standing on its right to trade unhindered and for its customers and employees to shop.
The right of BDS to assemble and protest does not extend to protest action inside Woolworths stores.
Woolworths said it respects the right of BDS to boycott, but is seeking to prevent protests inside stores.
The company said it rarely sources food abroad and follows the South African government’s rules on international trade when it does. More than 95% of its food is sourced locally and the government of South Africa authorises trade with Israel.
Woolworths has spent R14bn rand on South African food suppliers in the last financial year. It currently only sources three products from Israel.
It is a publicly traded, JSE-listed company, with shareholders from diverse cultural backgrounds and has stated in the past that it does not fund foreign governments or militia.
"We receive regular emails from BDS and we have responded to all their correspondence. We have listened to them and we shared our position on the conflict in the Middle East," said Woolworths.
"We have increased security to ensure the safety of our customers and employees. We’re working with our security experts, shopping malls and others stakeholders to keep our employees and customers safe."
The protests have only affected selected stores around the country.
BDS SA responds
In response to the legal action BDS SA said in a statement "the use (or rather, abuse) by Woolworths of our courts to force BDS South Africa to end the #BoycottWoolworths campaign is a sign of the desperation of Woolworths and the growing impact of the #BoycottWoolworths campaign".
BDS SA refers to Woolworths' court papers that claim "with the imminent onset of the festive season and the expected increased customer activity" it no longer has a choice but to act in order to protect its business operations and to enable it to trade freely as it has done until the protests started.
BDS SA says the court action shows that the protest campaign is having an impact.
"We disagree that the only option that Woolworths has was to go to court. The NC4P and BDS South Africa view this legal bullying and intimidation by a retail giant such as Woolworths of an activist organisation like BDS South Africa as unnecessary," said BDS SA.
"This issue could easily be resolved if Woolworths had simply accepted the numerous requests by the NC4P and BDS South Africa to meet and resolve this issue. The boycott of Woolworths and the protest actions can easily come to an end if Woolworths were simply to terminate its relations with Israel."
The NC4P and BDS SA maintain that all of its protest actions have been non-violent.
"The NC4P and BDS South Africa categorically deny ever intimidating customers, employees or damaging goods," BDS SA said.
"This intended interdict is a clear attempt by Woolworths to protect Israeli agricultural companies that are the main beneficiaries and directly complicit in the Israeli occupation of Palestinian land and theft of natural resources," alleges BDS SA.
BDS SA claims to date, the management of Woolworths has refused to meet to resolve the issue.