JOHANNESBURG – Nearly two weeks after South Africa’s government adopted a regulation to label goods produced in the West Bank as originating from the “Israeli Occupied Territories,” it has emerged that the country’s Zionist Federation decided long before then to take the issue to a Pretoria court.
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The South African Jewish community was outraged by the cabinet’s decision on August 22 to ratify the measure first proposed on May 10 by Trade and Industry Minister Rob Davies. His office placed a notice in the Government Gazette (where all government business is published), saying it wants merchants “not to incorrectly label products that originate from the Occupied Palestinian Territories as products of Israel.” The regulation also holds merchants responsible for identifying the provenance of products they sell.
Yet it has come to light in recent days that while some Jewish groups made a submission to parliament in response to the notice, the South African Zionist Federation has been quietly working on taking the matter to court, in an attempt to have the measure declared fatally flawed (legally-speaking), and therefore invalid.
The South African Zionist Federation and importers of Ahava – one of the companies singled out in the government’s notice to label Israeli-made goods produced beyond the Green Line – launched a court application on July 5.
Their application avoids dealing with the bigger political issues at hand – the labeling or boycott of Israeli-made goods – and instead focuses on technical aspects of Minister Davies’ notice, which the Zionist Federation’s attorneys said were deficient.
Avrom Krengel, chairman of the South African Zionist Federation, said that the technical legal approach might ensure that the matter is heard relatively soon, possibly before the end of the year. If the notice that launched the labeling is invalidated, the entire process that followed would also be nullified, said Krengel.
Krengel explained that after South African Zionist Federation realized that Davies was playing hardball on the issue, his group resolved to eschew negotiation with the minister, whose meeting with Jewish community leaders was not cordial, and to return fire with fire.
"It seemed clear that we weren't going to get anywhere by talking to the minister, so we took [our lawyer’s] advice and decided to let the courts deal with the issue," Krengel said.
The South African Zionist Federation has joined a number of other organizations that have found it necessary to “go to the law” if they want action, or a reaction, from the government. There has been an increasing trend over the last two years to take contentious matters to court. One of the best-known cases happened about two months ago, when the NGO Section 17 successfully sued the Basic Education Ministry because of its inability to deliver textbooks on time to schoolchildren in the Limpopo province.
Meanwhile, the Zionist Federation and Ahava importers are basing their action on three claims: They allege that the government notice was badly drafted, in terms of stipulations outlined by the consumer protection act (CPA). They also claim that Minister Davies used a “general” notice to deal with a specific complaint (that goods from the “occupied territories” are not labeled as such). The plaintiffs argue that, in legal terms, such an action – not letting the national consumer commission deal with the specific matter in the first place – is legally “incompetent.”
The petitioners also claim that the minister’s notice is “unconstitutionally vague,” meaning that it is impossible to ascertain from it precisely which issue he is trying to remedy. In addition, they argue that the minister has no right to place the onus of labeling certain goods on the “traders.”
The Zionist Federation’s Krengel said that as a result of the litigation process, his organization has been given access to documents in the general “file” on the issue of labeling Israeli-made products from the West Bank.
“Interestingly, it would appear from certain correspondence, from the head of the [pro-Palestinian] NGO Open Shuhada Street to the minister, in which this person ‘extends his deepest thanks to the minister regarding agreement on Ahava products’ – it would appear that this whole business was a done deal by the middle of December 2010,” Krengel said. “All that we have been going through is bureaucratic posturing. Not very democratic, was it?”