A call from a South African trade unionist for national supermarket chains to stop importing avocado from Israel could ultimately lead to the banning of all imports from the Jewish state, if unions and human rights activists have their way.
Katishi Masemola, secretary general of the Food and Allied Workers' Union (FAWU), told South Africa's supermarket chains earlier this week that Israel produces avocado under "slave-type conditions". He says the International Labour Organisation (ILO) forbids the use of child labour which, he claims, Israel is employing on avocado farms.
IPS contacted the Israeli embassy in Pretoria, the capital of South Africa, for comment. It did not return IPS's call.
Masemola told IPS in an interview: "Israel is occupying parts of Palestine and it's frustrating its moving towards statehood. In those occupied territories, avocados are produced under harsh slave-type conditions. Israeli farmers hire Palestinian children and pay them peanuts."
"The amount of avocado the South African supermarket chains import from Israel is negligible. It's just two percent of the total avocado they procure from overseas and locally," he said. "The supermarkets can do without it."
Derek Donkin, general manager of the South African Avocado Growers' Association (SAAGA), said South Africa produces 100,000 tonnes of avocado a year. "Between 40,000 and 45,000 tonnes are exported. The rest is sold for local consumption," he told IPS from his organisation's headquarters in Tzaneen, a four-hour drive from South Africa's commercial hub of Johannesburg.
"South Africa imports a small amount of avocado during off season (November-February) when we don't produce avocado. Many of the avocados come from Spain," he said.
In a Jan. 16 letter to Shaheed Mohamed, the coordinator of the South Africa branch of the Sanctions Against Israel Coalition, Brian Weyers, marketing director for Shoprite Checkers, a leading supermarket chain, said the Shoprite Group imported only 1.12 percent of 6.8 million avocados which it sold in 2006 from Israel.
"We bought 93.85 percent of the avocados locally and imported 5.03 percent from Spain and Kenya," he said. Weyers said the fruit was out of season and that was why they were forced to resort to alternative sources.
"In the instance of imported avocados, these were bought from a company in Israel, Carmel Agrexco, whom we are assured also has many Arab growers supplying fruits to them for export," Weyers said.
"We must also point out that Shoprite is not the only company in South Africa that sells Israeli produce. Today we purchase Israeli minneolas, grapefruit, naartjies, and persimmons in most of our competitors' stores in Cape Town," he said.
When IPS began making inquiries, it found that the fruit debate was only the tip of the iceberg. "It's not only avocado. The main item that concerns us is diamond. Israel imports diamond from South Africa; polishes it and cuts it before selling it back to South Africa at almost ten times its original value. It does the same with gold," Mohamed told IPS by phone from Cape Town.
"Israel imports diamond worth three billion rand (about 430 million dollars) from South Africa a year. Israel doesn't produce a single diamond. Yet 30 percent of its GDP (gross domestic product) comes from diamond. The diamond could be polished and cut in South Africa to provide jobs for the estimated 40 percent unemployed South Africans," he said.
In the past 12 months, De Beers -- the leading diamond mining company in South Africa -- retrenched 1,200 workers out of its over 10,000 workers, according to Rivonia Mura Khosi, a union leader at the De Beers mine in Kimberly, South Africa.
"On top of that they want to retrench 400 more workers. Next week we are going to meet the management over the issue. If we can save the retrenchment, the better for us," he told IPS in an interview. "If not, then we'll try to negotiate a good package for them. It will be hard."
Slowly, the anti-Israeli coalition is growing in South Africa. "We haven't made the call to impose sanctions against Israel yet. We know Israel commits atrocities against Palestinians. But we are moving there. It's just a matter of months," Masemola said.
"We are making a call to mobilise South African workers. We want to all diamonds from Israel to be treated as conflict diamonds. We urge people not to buy diamonds from Israel," said Mohamed.
An international campaign targeting Israeli crafted diamonds is planned for February in South Africa, Britain, Canada, Australia and Ireland.
For its part, the De Beers Group denies any wrongdoing. "100 percent of De Beers' diamonds are certified as conflict-free. Currently, less than one percent of the world's diamonds are conflict diamonds. While today more than 99 percent of rough diamonds are certified to be from conflict-free sources the diamond industry has a zero tolerance policy towards conflict diamonds and will not rest until conflict diamonds are completely eradicated," it said on its website.
"While Sierra Leone is now at peace, currently Liberia, Republic of Congo (also known as Congo-Brazzaville) and the Ivory Coast are under UN sanctions," it added.
Under the 2003 Kimberly Process certification scheme, which groups 71 countries, diamonds must be conflict-free. The process was prompted by bloody conflicts in diamond-rich African countries, which have claimed hundreds of thousands of lives.
In Africa, Mohamed's coalition operates in Morocco and Egypt. South Africa hosts the only one, so far known, in sub-Saharan Africa. Mohamed's four colleagues attended the Jan. 20-25 World Social Forum (WSF) in Nairobi, Kenya, where they organised a demonstration against Israel.
Mohamed said the coalition is also targeting South Africa for selling aircraft and helicopter parts to Israel. He said Israel uses helicopter gunship against Palestinians. "By implication, we are involved in the murder of innocent Palestinian civilians by Israeli soldiers," he said.
The South African government, which has not imposed sanctions, nor introduced boycott regulations, on Israeli goods, is perceived to be pro-Palestine, given the history between the ruling African National Congress (ANC) and the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO). The former apartheid regime worked closely with the Jewish state.
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