MBOMBELA – An alleged food tampering complaint on social media has snowballed into an apparent plot to spark racial tension, and in the process, damage a well-known breakfast and hamburger franchise.
Reports on fake news sites have been shared far and wide on Facebook since the complaint about Wimpy in i’langa Mall was first posted on the social media platform last Friday, creating the impression that black employees of the restaurant are sabotaging the meals of white clients.
Wimpy outlets across the country are consequently being threatened with boycotts.
A similar incident occurred last year
Just last year, Spur reported great financial losses following a confrontation between a black and white client in one of its outlets. The ordeal was captured on cellphone video and shared on Facebook.
The white client was banned from the steakhouse for life, and many white clientele publicly vowed to never dine in any Spur again, as they felt the black customer too should have been banned.
The Wimpy complaint
The complaint against Wimpy was made on Mildri Ferreira’s Facebook page. She is the co-owner of Signbird in Mbombela.
It is alleged that she made the post on her husband’s behalf. He ordered toast with feta and guacamole that Friday morning.
Mildri declined the opportunity to provide her side of the story, and referred Lowvelder to her husband, Jak Potgieter.
Potgieter is listed on the Internet as one of the owners of Goba Construction.
He alleged that his food was laced with something that literally smelled like faeces and alleged he took to social media as he “could not get a hold of the manager”.
Potgieter told Lowvelder that even though this has gone too far, he would do exactly the same if it happened again, and refused to take responsibility for the damage his actions caused.
The complainant side of the story
“I am angry about what happened and I stand by the initial post,” he said, and denied that his behaviour was the cause of a nationwide outcry.
“My words were twisted,” he said, while threatening Lowvelder with a lawsuit should the information exchanged during the telephonic conversation, be used in this article.
“I don’t care about freedom of the media,” Potgieter stated.
He refused to explain why the social media profile was fake, why the post was deleted and whether he has a personal vendetta against the restaurant. He also did not comment on the fact that Wimpy was voted the best breakfast venue in Mbombela. “My lawyer instructed me not to answer any questions from the media.”
Wimpy representatives meets with complainant
Potgieter, however, met with Wimpy representatives yesterday and said his wife, who made the post, never intended to imply or state directly that his food had foreign matter in it, nor that any Wimpy staff member or members acted to place foreign matter in his food.
He made it clear during the meeting that he and his wife have been very concerned with the way the original post has played out on social media, particularly the many unsubstantiated rumours that have been widely spread. He has asked social media users to exercise restraint and to avoid malicious personal attacks.
The fake news and how the facts were twisted
Fake news that “white people’s food is literally being laced with sh#t in South Africa,” and allegations that “staff members admitting to spitting and defecating all the time,” have been spreading internationally with clear intentions to create a racial divide.
“It’s been unfortunate to see what happened on social media, but we are grateful to our customer for engaging with us throughout, and for setting the record straight so that there is no confusion.
Wimpy franchisee’s response
“I am confident the Mbombela community will continue to enjoy the great food and relaxed atmosphere at our restaurant well into the future,” said Sarel Cilliers, Wimpy i’langa Mall franchisee.
I am satisfied with the way Wimpy addressed my general customer service complaint, and the actions the restaurant has taken with its staff since speaking to him about the incident,” Potgieter said.
Wimpy decides not to take steps against complainant
Wimpy has decided not to take any steps against the complainant and would rather continue to engage with the customer in order to resolve this matter amicably.
The restaurant’s in-depth investigation showed no evidence of the claim of food tampering.
Wimpy confirmed that the post appeared hours after the incident, and that the original post had been deleted. A screenshot was, however, taken, and has been shared.
How Wimpy handled the claims
The Wimpy area franchise manager visited the restaurant within hours of the event occurring and compiled a report on the issues experienced by the customer.
A full investigation into the allegation of food tampering was immediately launched by Wimpy i’langa Mall. It included analysis of CCTV footage and extensive staff interviews. The store has not found any evidence to suggest that food tampering took place.
“We take allegations of misconduct extremely seriously, and we investigate immediately. The customer clearly had a negative experience, and we will be taking action to improve in the areas of concern he identified.
“When it comes to food tampering, however, we cannot find any evidence to substantiate the ideas circulated on social media. I am confident that our restaurant operates at the highest ethical standards and will keep doing so in the future,” Cilliers concluded.
What the law says:
Lowvelder spoke to Helene Eloff, social-media law specialist and legal adviser for Caxton Local Media:
The topic of defamation has been receiving a lot of attention lately, mainly because social-media users regularly abuse platforms like Facebook to hurt the reputations of others.
South Africans are irritated with the pandemic of naming and shaming. I call it a pandemic because it has gotten out of control and causes way too much harm. This harm increases daily and we have now reached boiling point.
Whereas victims previously took no action, they are now beginning to make use of the law to hold online trolls (the colloquial term that describes rude social-media users) accountable. This is a good thing. People should feel the consequences of their inexcusable online behaviour. But what is inexcusable online behaviour in terms of our law?
Basically, you should align your online behaviour with the saying medical professionals use as their rule of thumb – first do no harm. Don’t stalk, don’t gossip and do not be rude. Don’t be racist, sexist or a homophobic.
If you have a problem with someone, meet with them and solve it rather than publishing online
The legal terms for reprehensible social-media behaviour include hate speech, discrimination, defamation and crimen injuria.
Unjustified naming and shaming, or defamation, has led to our courts awarding R40 000 damages to victims. Those who have to pay up in defamation cases are not only the authors of such statements, but also those who associate with it by liking, sharing, or failing to untag themselves from defamatory posts.
Although defamation is normally associated with the unjustifiable naming and shaming of individuals, businesses have recourse when their good reputations are dragged through the mud.
In 2011, the South Gauteng High Court ruled that Carte Blanche was liable for defaming Gold Reef City by alleging that the theme park was unsafe in a 2005 episode. It was accepted that the entity’s reputation was its lifeblood. This principle can be appropriated to the i’langa Wimpy scenario.
Lowvelders chose it as a local favourite during Wednesday’s Best of Mbombela awards. It is clear that the place has a good reputation.
In comes a Facebook user who trashes its name with damaging allegations before deleting the post and profile
Let us say – hypothetically – that the entity starts losing patrons and income as a result. If that is the case and the person responsible cannot prove that he or she has a valid defence that would justify his behaviour, he or she will be liable. Defences include that his or her statement was true and in the public interest, fair comment without malice or unintentional.
What to do if someone defames you
In conclusion, I urge victims of online defamation to take legal action. If your human rights are violated, report it to the Human Rights Commission. If someone directly hurts your dignity or intimidates you, open a police case. And if someone defames you unlawfully, speak to your lawyer about suing them. Too many South Africans fail to align their behaviour with basic decency and respect for their fellow human beings.
If legal action or fear of a R40 000 fine is what it takes to make an online troll step in line, then I guess we have no choice but to act accordingly.