Government’s investor a major shareholder in Woolworths

Public servants are shareholders in companies that have trade ties with Israel.

The Public Investment Corporation (PIC), which invests on behalf of the Government Employees Pension Fund (GEPF), among others, is a major shareholder in Woolworths, according to the retail giants’ shareholding disclosure.

The PIC has a holding of 16.3% of shares in Woolworths through the GEPF. This makes public servants major beneficial shareholders at 137 800 295 shares.

“People who are contributing to the GEPF have strong views on the matter [the Israel-Palestine conflict],” said a source who is not authorised to speak on behalf of the PIC, and asked to remain anonymous. “But because their [contributions] are taken from their salaries … and paid to GEPF, they [may] not be aware they are investing in Israel related companies.”

Last week the Mail & Guardian asked the PIC what its stance is on investing or being a shareholder in companies (or retailers) that are seen to be friendly with Israel.

PIC spokesperson Sekgoela Sekgoela said he could not comment on the shares the corporation holds in Israeli-sympathetic companies on behalf of its clients.

“We can’t respond specifically to your questions, but we can say that there are consultations taking place with our clients. We need to understand all the aspects involved,” said Sekgoela.

However, the PIC source told the M&G that there was supposed to be a policy drafted by the corporation that should have been shared with its clients on the issue of possibly divesting and boycotting companies that have trade links with Israel.

“But there was never a sign-off on it,” said the source.

Unanswered questions
The PIC has so far not answered the following questions:

  • What is the PIC’s stance on investing or being a shareholder in companies (or retailers) that are seen to be friendly towards Israel, bearing in mind the global outcry against the treatment of Palestinian citizens by Israel?
  • Is the PIC in solidarity with the people of Palestine? Does the PIC plan to boycott, divest and sanction Israel or entities that trade with Israel?
  • Apart from Woolworths, does the PIC hold investments or shares in other companies that have trade relations with Israel?

As it stands, the GEPF is Africa’s largest pension fund, with more than 1.2 million members, and has assets worth more than R1-trillion. This fund is managed by the PIC and accounts for 89% of the assets under management. Out of the 1.2-million members, about a million belong to the public sector unions under the union federation, Cosatu.

In November, Cosatu’s international relations secretary, Bongani Masuku, wrote a press release asking for “the isolation of apartheid Israel”, which “will force Israel to end its violations of international law and negotiate a just peace with the Palestinians”.

Masuku called on the government to sever ties with Israel. “We know from our own history that boycotts and divestments from apartheid South Africa created the necessary conditions for an end to apartheid to be negotiated. The same is possible for Palestinians and Israelis.”

Diplomatic relations
But Sekgoela said he could not comment on behalf of clients, especially the GEPF, as decisions had not been finalised.

Meanwhile, the South African Boycott Divest and Sanctions (BDS-SA) has called for shareholder activism.

BDS-SA co-ordinator Kwara Kekana told the M&G that BDS-SA has been in discussion with the PIC regarding divestment from companies that have trade relations with Israel, as one of the major shareholders at Woolworths and the government’s investment wing.

“We have raised this matter and we will raise it again with other shareholders at the [Woolworths] annual general meeting tomorrow,” said Kekana.

The spokesperson at the department of international relations and co-operation, Nelson Kgwete, said: “We maintain diplomatic relations with Israel and Palestine. Our policy and approach in light of that [the call for divestment from Israel and the severing of trade relations] has not changed. To Israel, the call is the same, we maintain diplomatic relations with Israel and Palestine.”

Campaign against Woolworths
The department of trade and industry’s Sidwell Medupe reiterated the sentiment and said South Africa still traded with Israel and there was no boycott proclamation from the government.

“But what we do is we have a country of origin on the labels so the consumer can know and people can choose what they want to support,” said Medupe.

Last week BDS-SA held a press conference where a small number of shareholders pledged their support for the BDS-SA campaign against Woolworths in solidarity with Palestine.

“This is the one issue that Cosatu is undivided on,” said spokesperson Patrick Craven, who was present at the press conference last week. He asked shareholders to use their influence to force Woolworths to cut trade ties with Israel suppliers.

Several BDS-SA South Africa members have bought shares in Woolworths and will attend the annual general meeting on November 26.

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