Woolworths has one billion shares scattered globally among shareholders, the company said on Tuesday.
“We have a diverse community of shareholders. They represent an array of faiths, cultures, and beliefs,” Woolworths said in a statement.
“Woolworths abhors violence and loss of life, particularly of children, in any circumstance and we are deeply saddened by the tragic consequences of the ongoing conflict in Gaza.”
The company was responding to a press conference in Johannesburg on Tuesday by various shareholders who indicated they supported the campaign to boycott Woolworths until it ended all relations with Israel.
The briefing was called by Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions SA (BDS SA) to show its support for the shareholder activism.
The briefing was attended by Nadia Hassan, representing a group of businessmen who hold shares in Woolworths, a Jewish human rights activist representing a Jewish Woolworths shareholder, a representative for Stellenbosch-based author and writer Marthie Momberg who owns shares in Woolworths, Congress of the SA Trade Unions spokesman Patrick Craven, and BDS SA national co-ordinator Muhammed Desai.
Desai said they were not at liberty to disclose how many shares those who supported the boycott held.
He said BDS SA and its partners bought between 40 and 50 individual shares in order to attend the company’s annual general meeting, to be held in Cape Town on November 26.
In the statement, Woolworths said it complied with government guidelines.
“We have no political affiliations. We fully comply with the South African government guidelines on product from Israel and the Middle East,” it said.
“None of our products are sourced from occupied territories, nor do any of our suppliers have operations in the occupied territories.”
Woolworths said all its products, including the three currently sourced from Israel — pretzels, figs and pomegranates — were clearly labelled, for “customer choice”.
Woolworths said it had responded to all questions from BDS SA and explained its approach to sourcing products internationally.
Hassan said the businessmen she represented were concerned at how Woolworths’ management was responding to the boycott.
“The group of businessmen that hold shares in Woolworths have made it clear that they are concerned regarding the increasingly irresponsible manner in which the management of Woolworths is handling the boycott Woolworths campaign,” Hassan told reporters in Johannesburg.
She was asked by a group of businessmen who held shares in Woolworths to represent them and their interests at the company’s annual general meeting.
On August 4, BDS SA began a campaign to boycott Woolworths over its trade relations with Israel following the war in Gaza.
The organisation said that, by Woolworths’ own admission, the #BoycottWoolworths campaign was having an effect on the company’s business.
Last week, Woolworths applied for an interdict in the High Court in Johannesburg to prevent pro-Palestine activists from protesting in its stores. The matter would be heard on November 25.
Although Woolworths respected BDS SA’s right to protest, the retailer said it was intimidating customers and employees, and restricting access to stores.
Craven told the briefing the trade union federation was behind the BDS SA campaign.
“We wish you every success with your campaign. Our message to business is that there are more important things to strive for in this world than pushing up share prices.”
Craven said he believed that in the long run the boycott would be good for Woolworths.
Desai said they had bought shares in Woolworths to be able to attend the annual general meeting and raise “ethical issues”.
“The boycott against Woolworths and the boycott against Israel is not a malicious boycott and it’s not to punish either Woolworths or Israel.”
He said it was a “movement” that started in 2005 and included the divestment of various pension funds. Universities had also boycotted Israel, he said.
“The movement is moving and it’s moving at a supersonic speed.” SAPA