This has not been a particularly edifying week for white South Africans. After an angry blog post about Woolworths’s hiring policies went viral, a surprisingly large group of white people have threatened to boycott the supermarket. Woolies – an upmarket food-and-clothing store similar to Marks and Spencer in the UK – notes in some of its job advertisements that certain positions are available only to black candidates.
Pierre de Vos, Professor of constitutional law, points out that this is ‘neither illegal nor unconstitutional.’ The purpose of the measure is to address the absence of black South Africans in particular categories of jobs. The company has not introduced a moratorium on hiring whites, and whites may still apply for jobs advertised as being aimed specifically at black candidates.
In a magnificent riposte to the white loons threatening never to shop again at Woolworths – in the strange belief that other supermarkets don’t have similar hiring policies (they do) – Ferial Haffajee, editor of the City Press, explained:
Without affirmative action, I would likely be a retrenched clothing factory worker or a low-level banking clerk. That was the expected, the planned outcome for people like me. The system was called apartheid. We needed help to escape our destiny and millions of South Africans still need that help.
It is not reverse racism, but a Constitutional imperative to fix our society. …those of you who spammed the Woolies CEO for applying the law are wrong. You discount, completely, the role of inter-generational privilege in your life.
To make a good future society demands we have make-right policies for the old one. It doesn’t fix itself.
I doubt that the boycott will have any effect on Woolies’ sales this year. The satirical site Hayibo summed up middle-class South Africans’ relationship with the store particularly well:
‘I will never shop at Woolies again, until later this afternoon when I will go and get salmon and malva pudding,’ said one irate shopper.
As this was a lost opportunity to have a constructive discussion about affirmative action and economic empowerment in post-apartheid South Africa – two issues always worth thinking about – this also represents a moment to think about the nature and effects of consumer boycotts.
I was particularly amused by this threatened whites-only boycott because of the impact that international boycotts had on apartheid South Africa. The country’s economy was brought to its knees after the 1986 Comprehensive Anti-Apartheid Act became law in the US, preventing American businesses and banks from exporting and importing some commodities to and from South Africa, and investing in, and extending loans to, the country. Sport and cultural boycotts accompanied these sanctions.
The Anti-Apartheid Movement in Britain originated as a boycott campaign against South African produce in 1959. It organised boycotts of Cape Fruit, Outspan oranges, and a range of other products, as well as of businesses like Barclays and Total which operated in South Africa. Even if this campaign – and others around the world – didn’t pose as much as a threat to the apartheid state as the sanctions of the 1980s, what they achieved was to make ordinary people aware of apartheid by appealing to them not to support the South African economy.
There seems to have been an increase in this kind of political consumer boycott since the 1980s, and probably as a result of a heightened awareness of the connection between the exercise of political power and the emergence of global corporations. One of the best – and most successful – examples of these was the Nestle Boycott organised by War on Want and other groups in 1977, to draw attention to the link between the marketing of infant formula and high rates of child mortality in the developing world.
But political consumerism and consumer boycotts have existed long before then. In fact, the abolitionist movement has been described as one of the first examples of concerted consumer activism in support of a political cause. Not only could early opponents to slavery buy abolitionist-themed crockery from Wedgwood, but, particularly during the nineteenth century, abolitionists all over the world refused to buy American sugar or cotton.
Lawrence B. Glickman writes:
consumer activism – the attempt to mobilise consumers for political purposes – has been important to American political culture at least since the Boston Tea Party. Indeed…American national identity was forged in no small part through collective acts of consumption. Central to African American claims for political and economic inclusion have been demands for…‘consumer entitlement,’ ranging from boycotting Jim Crow street cars to taking advantage of the ‘autonomy and anonymity’ of catalogue shopping as a way of avoiding mistreatment by merchants, to boycotting tourism in South Carolina as a way of protesting the Confederate flag that until recently flew over the state house. Similarly…among many women in the Progressive Era ‘consumer consciousness built political consciousness’ as they boycotted unsafe and costly food and campaigned for minimum wages and decent labour standards for those who produced what they bought.
It’s striking how frequently consumer boycotts have been used by those who are politically and socially marginalised, to demand equal treatment and an end to discrimination. They were a key strategy in the American Civil Rights movement, and featured to some extent in the Defiance Campaign against apartheid legislation in the early 1950s, and, later, during the township rebellion in the 1980s.
Some of the earliest consumer boycotts in the United States and Britain were organised by women, and usually in response to sudden increases in the price of staple foods. For instance, in 1902, immigrant Jewish women in New York organised a boycott after the price of Kosher beef increased by half. By withdrawing their support from local butchers – and, admittedly, rioting in lower Manhattan – they managed to reduce prices.
In 1924 and 1933, Jewish women in Toronto – many of them members of communist groups – also organised boycotts of Kosher butchers to protest rising prices of meat. On both occasions, significant numbers of women were mobilised not only to stop shopping for meat, but to picket butchers.
Indeed, there were widespread boycotts organised by women during the Great Depression. These ‘housewives’ protests’ were part of a broader movement in which women sought to mitigate the effects of the Depression by lobbying government, planting community gardens, establishing bartering systems for food and other goods, and even engaging in acts of civil disobedience. In Cleveland, for instance, black mothers protested a power company’s decision to switch off electricity as a result of non-payment of bills, by hanging wet washing over the power lines. The electricity was switched on the next day.
In 1946, the Washington Committee for Consumer Protection was formed by a group of women – including some who had been active in union politics during the 1930s – to organise boycotts of red meat and other products to protest the increase in food prices at the end of the Second World War. (The American government had kept them artificially low during the conflict.) Other committees organised boycotts of milk and dairy products for similar reasons.
Boycotts demonstrate particularly well that buying power – and the exercise or withholding of this power – seems to function as a replacement of real access to political power for those who are socially marginalised.
I don’t want to suggest for a moment that there’s an equivalence between the heroic housewives of 1930s America and the white nitwits who are trying – and probably failing – to organise a boycott of Woolworths. But I do think that the rage which has propelled this boycott suggests that there is a section of South Africa’s white population which feels – with some justification – that its interests are not being represented by mainstream political parties. And this is worth taking seriously.
Monroe Friedman, ‘American Consumer Boycotts in Response to Rising Food Prices: Housewives’ Protests at the Grassroots Level,’ Journal of Consumer Policy, vol. 18 (1995), pp. 55-72.
Lawrence B. Glickman, ‘“Buy for the Sake of the Slave”: Abolitionism and the Origins of American Consumer Activism,’ American Quarterly, vol. 56, no. 4 (Dec., 2004), pp. 889-912.
Lawrence B. Glickman, ‘The Strike in the Temple of Consumption: Consumer Activism and Twentieth-Century American Political Culture,’ The Journal of American History, vol. 88, no. 1 (Jun., 2001), pp. 99-128.
Matthew Hilton, ‘The Female Consumer and the Politics of Consumption in Twentieth-Century Britain,’ The Historical Journal, vol. 45, no. 1 (Mar., 2002), pp. 103-128.
Stacy Kinlock Sewell, ‘The “Not-Buying Power” of the Black Community: Urban Boycotts and Equal Employment Opportunity, 1960-1964,’ The Journal of African American History, vol. 89, no. 2, African Americans and the Urban Landscape (Spring, 2004), pp. 135-151.
Annelise Orleck, ‘“We Are That Mythical Thing Called the Public”: Militant Housewives during the Great Depression,’ Feminist Studies, vol. 19, no. 1 (Spring, 1993), pp. 147-172.
Kathleen C. Schwartzman, ‘Can International Boycotts Transform Political Systems? The Cases of Cuba and South Africa,’ Latin American Politics and Society, vol. 43, no. 2 (Summer, 2001), pp. 115-146.
Andor Skotnes, ‘“Buy Where You Can Work”: Boycotting for Jobs in African-American Baltimore, 1933-1934,’ Journal of Social History, vol. 27, no. 4 (Summer, 1994), pp. 735-761.
Dietlind Stolle, Marc Hooghe, and Michele Micheletti, ‘Politics in the Supermarket: Political Consumerism as a Form of Political Participation,’ International Political Science Review, vol. 26, no. 3 (Jul., 2005), pp. 245-269.
Lynne Taylor, ‘Food Riots Revisited,’ Journal of Social History, vol. 30, no. 2 (Winter, 1996), pp. 483-496.
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