South Africa shop - Bloomberg
South African supermarket employee labeling goods produced in the West Bank as from 'the Occupied Palestinian territories.' Photo by Bloomberg
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Johannesburg - South African minister of trade and industries Rob Davies could be headed into more of a squall than he might have foreseen or wished for – even if it’s a storm in a teacup for the South African government, relatively speaking.

On May 10, Davies’ department placed a notice (its 379th in 2012) in the Government Gazette, the place where all government business is published, saying it wants merchants “not to incorrectly label products that originate from the Occupied Palestinian Territory as products of Israel.”

The notice did not say what the labels should say. But it seems obvious that, rather than reading “Made in Israel” or “Product of Israel”, the government is demanding goods from Israel indicate if they originated in the occupied Palestinian Territory. (Under the Consumer Protection Act, the burden of proving where products originate is the responsibility of traders.)

These rules will trip up affected Israeli imports by implying that they originate in “illegal settlement in the Occupied Palestinian Territories."

Among the affected products would be technology and soft drink products such as the Soda Stream brand, which are presently sold as products of Israel. The cosmetics brand Ahava sold at Wellness Warehouse in Cape Town and at Foschini stores would also be affected.

Halva and gherkins, sold at Pick ‘n Pay and Spar, probably fall into the same category, as do plums, tomatoes, dates and figs. These are sourced from the occupied territories and sold as a product of Israel Pick ‘n Pay and Woolworths.

The proposal has not taken effect yet: as is the practice in post-1994 South Africa, public objections can first be submitted, in this case up to the end of June.

But, though the proposal is not yet law, the proverbial has already started hitting the fan.

Israel singled out?

The South African Jewish community is a smaller and less influential bunch than 20 years ago. But it nonetheless has a loud voice, some clout, and is well organized – and the general community “views” on Israel and “Palestine” are right of centre.

In a reaction on Monday, the South Africa Jewish Board of Deputies was relatively restrained: “This decision was taken by the Minister based on his communications with lobby groups that have a pronounced anti-Israel political agenda.

“He has repeatedly declined to meet with the SAJBD... We believe that in line with the consultative ethos of South Africa it is regrettable that the Minister has decided to gazette this issue without broad consultation.”

At the same time, since 1994, the Muslim community has become far more radicalized and likes nothing better than get into verbal tussles – often pretty nasty – with the Jewish community. The Israeli and Jewish reaction to Davies’ proposal will be perceived by the Islamic community as a question of Israel vs. the Palestinians (which perhaps it is) and Davies can expect a great deal of noise from this quarter too.

In any case, Israel’s foreign ministry appears to be pretty angry and has already kicked off the action. South Africa’s ambassador to Israel, Ismail Coovadia, was summoned to face a drubbing from the ministry on Monday, and ministry spokesman Yigal Palmor said the move smacked of “racism.”

In another development, on Sunday the University of Kwa-Zulu Nata canceled a lecture by Israeli deputy ambassador Yaakov Finkelstein, saying it could create bad publicity and stain the university's reputation.

Israel claims it is being singled out because special labels are not applied to products made in dozens of other places where territorial conflicts exist: the Falklands, Kashmir, north Cyprus, and so on.

Palestinians and supporters, inspired by the anti-apartheid economic boycotts, have been and are trying to ignite a full-scale economic onslaught on Israel. The Israeli government is well aware that such a move from South Africa, even though South Africa is not a major Israeli market, could be the thin edge of the wedge.

Ghassan Khatib, spokesman for the West Bank-based Palestinian Authority, has reportedly praised the South African step, saying it constituted “a genuine challenge to Israel on its continuous violation of international law and the rights of the Palestinian people.”

But Davies, 64, who was made a minister by South African president Jacob Zuma as a “favor” to the trade union movement and the Left, is an old-style ANC Marxist (some say “Stalinist”) in the Joe Slovo mold. He completed his Ph.D. (in “political studies”) at the-then radical redbrick university, Sussex, in 1977 and joined the ANC in 1978 (in Mozambique) and the South African Communist party in 1989.

Davies might relish the altercation to come. Ironically, the ANC as a whole might not mind what to its members is a tussle in a tea-cup – at a time when the party is being considerably discomfited by a number of other issues: the expulsion of youth league leader, Julius Malema; a violent clash between the trade union federation Cosatu and the official opposition, the Democratic Alliance, on the streets of Johannesburg; the public movement that recently resulted in a legal action forcing the government to postpone its ambitious road tolling program; the massive public outcry related to the corruption of one of the country’s most senior policemen, General Richard Mdluli; and more.

Davies resolved to go this way after meeting in September with activist Zackie Achmat and his organization, Open Shuhada Street – a Cape Town-based group of activists (including Jews) who, as the Treatment Action Campaign (TAC), successfully went after the government, forcing it to administer anti-retrovirals to people with HIV/Aids. Open Shuhada Street is hailing the gazetting of the trade and industries’ notice as an important victory.

The writer is a veteran journalist and columnist on Politicsweb.co.za and former associate editor of The Sunday Independent. He is ghost-writer of A Long Night’s Damage: Working for the Apartheid State by Eugene de Kock (1998) and author of Zuma: A Biography (2010).