By SUE MACLENNAN
Wholesalers and spaza shop owners in Makhanda are faced with possible losses of tens of thousands of rands following social media posts falsely claiming that a brand of chips made children ill. The Gauteng based manufacturer alleges the fake news is part of a smear campaign by a commercial rival to undermine the brand, and police are investigating its origins. To reassure the public that the popular corn snack is safe, the company shared laboratory tests. They have embarked on a province-wide campaign to educate school children about fake news and the pitfalls of social media.
During the 11-12 September weekend, a voice note went viral in the Eastern Cape, including Makhanda. A woman claims that a Grade 7 child is gravely ill in Dora Nginza Hospital in Gqeberha. The voice note claims that she ate a specific brand of chips bought from “makwerekwere” – a derogatory term for foreign nationals. Accompanying it, and purportedly in support of the false claim, is a photograph of a young girl lying on her side on a hospital bed, eyes closed, an oxygen tube in her nose.
In Makhanda, the version of the rumour was that the girl is a pupil at a particular Joza primary school. When GM asked the school whether there had been such a case, the deputy principal responded, “I have not yet received any such information.”
Local health authorities responded likewise. Head of the Department of Health’s Makana Subdistrict, Mohamed Docrat, said last Friday, “I have not received any reports regarding this.”
Sarah Baartman District Manager for Environmental Health in Makana, Johann Esterhuizen, said his team had been alerted to the social media posts by members of a local neighbourhood group.
“However, they couldn’t tell us the name of the girl, how to contact her family or where the chips they said had made her sick came from.”
Esterhuizen also forwarded the posts to a WhatsApp forum of environmental health practitioners (EHPs) in the Sarah Baartman district, including in Gqeberha, where the girl was purportedly in hospital. None had received any such reports.
The product is Jojo maize snacks, made at the Eldorado Foods factory in Nancefield, Soweto.
According to the manufacturer, the posts (and similar ones) had been circulating on social media for two weeks already. They had originated in Cape Town and spread along the Western Cape and Eastern Cape as far as Lusikisiki, with variations in the details to match the various locations, they told GM.
They believe it is a deliberate smear campaign by a commercial rival. Jojos are a popular spaza and school tuckshop corn snack that sells in high volumes because of its low price relative to some 40 competitors in the market, said spokesperson Wayne Du Preez. Du Preez is the sales director for Icon Trading and has worked with Eldorado Foods for the past 18 years.
“They are a reputable company that is trusted with several well-known brand labels,” Du Preez said. “The problem came when we shifted our marketing of this product to a new region.”
The new area of growth for Eldorado Foods, Du Preez explained, was an area along the coast and inland, from Cape Town to Lusikisiki.
“This is the area that has grown the most in the past six months,” said Du Preez. “And that’s exactly where the smear campaign has been targeting.
“We immediately ordered independent lab tests at the factory and on samples from retailers in that area. We showed [our customers]the results and reassured them of the safety of the product.”
GM has seen the laboratory and safety inspection results, which indicate no negative findings.
But the damage was done: the false rumours had gained traction.
The Makhanda Neighborhood Watch has gained a strong community following through actively tackling crime in township areas. Alarmed at the claims made in the post and concerned for the community’s safety, they immediately acted in what they believed was the public’s interest.
One of the group’s leaders told GM they had seen the posts about a child purportedly falling ill and were very concerned.
“As the Makhanda Neighborhood Watch, we are removing all [these chips]from Wholesalers, Supermarkets and Local Spaza Shops,” they said last Monday.
The group agreed to the suggested alternative of discussing their concern with environmental health staff in the municipality; however, because the claims being made on social media were so severe, they also proceeded with the plan to directly and immediately approach wholesalers and retailers to remove the product from their shelves.
‘Better safe than sorry,” a representative of the group said.
The viral spread of the posts across two provinces has forced the company to take drastic action. Du Preez said charges had been laid, and the police were investigating.
“It’s not the people who misguidedly spread the fake news or acted on what they were misled into believing,” Du Preez emphasised. He said the targets of the probe were the primary instigators, and they believe it is a commercial rival.
South African Police Service national spokesperson Brenda Muridili confirmed that a case was opened on 14 September 2021.
“The Charge is Any other offence against the reputation or honour of a person,” she said.
Legends Cash Store
The owner of Makhanda wholesaler Legends Cash Store, Ian Doyle, said he had seen the posts on Facebook and immediately contacted the Jojo sales rep.
“They said it was a false rumour that had been started in the Western Cape and that the company had ordered laboratory tests to reassure customers that the product is safe.
“Then a group came telling me I must destroy my stock. I asked them if they had any evidence and were sure it wasn’t just fake news. I asked them who would pay if I destroyed my stock based on just a rumour.
“I don’t have deep pockets,” Doyle said. “I now have R20 000 worth of stock just sitting still in my storage and not moving, just because of a false rumour that has gone viral.”
Spaza shops and school tuckshops drive a significant part of Doyle’s wholesale turnover. But Makhanda’s spaza shops had also been instructed by the group to destroy their stock.
“If I can’t afford this, how much less can they?” Doyle asked. “Malicious rumours like this could mean the end of my business and theirs.”
Many of Makhanda’s spaza shops are owned by immigrants. Because of the reference to “makwerekwere” in the voice note, some shop owners have expressed concern that whoever started the rumours may have xenophobic motives.
Doyle, who was born and bred in Makhanda, employs 17 local people in his wholesale store.
“Between us, we are supporting 16 families,” he said. “Closing this business would be a disaster.
Lab test and DoH test
A letter from Eldorado Foods’ Quality and Compliance Manager dated 10 September emphasises, “We currently have teams on the ground investigating the claims and have not found one single complainant relating to the rumour nor have we received any official customer complaint.
“We are extremely confident of our quality, and hygiene standards [and]are willing to share the certification of our product on request.”
Documentation supplied by Eldorado Foods to reassure the public of their factory’s standards and the product’s safety includes:
• The laboratory results of bacteriological and other testing dated March 2020;
• A certificate of acceptability of food premises dated 12 June 2020;
• An investigation report from the City of Johannesburg’s Environmental Health. The report notes that the results would be available seven days after the samples were taken (15 September 2021).
More than 50 immediate jobs had been affected in the Eastern Cape, Du Preez said.
“These were people employed from the local communities as marketing or field agents and shelf packers. Icon has invested heavily in the area, and it will impact all our staff as well.”
Jojo has expanded their production lines to cater for growth in the Eastern Cape, Du Preez said.
“If sales are lost and not recovered elsewhere, it could result in a further loss of 100 jobs.”
“Our suppliers are also heavily impacted, as they too have invested and employed more people to cater for Jojo’s expansion to the Eastern Cape.
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