A business boycott gathered momentum on Tuesday as major retailers cut orders from suppliers associated with KwaSizabantu Mission in the wake of allegations of abuse and money laundering, threatening hundreds of jobs and risking damage to the regional economy.
Spar, Woolworths, Walmart-owned Massmart (owner of Makro and Game) and Food Lover’s Market announced yesterday that they had suspended orders, while demanding answers to the allegations.
Piling on the pressure was the Human Rights Commission, which called for its own investigation, in addition to the police investigation confirmed by Police Minister Bheki Cele.
Woolworths was first to announce that it was severing ties, and Spar group merchandise executive Mike Prentice confirmed to Business Insider that the group had suspended orders from Ekhamanzi Springs, which owns the water brand aQuellé, as well as for fruit and vegetables from Emseni Farming. In KZN, some Spar franchises also sell Bonlé, a yoghurt brand which is associated with KwaSizabantu.
aQuellé is now fighting for survival and blasted the allegations as “vicious”.
aQuellé, which supports several Pietermaritzburg events, including the Midmar Mile swimming event which brings millions of rands into the Midlands annually, found itself in the firing line after a News24 investigation alleged human rights abuses, including rape and sexual molestation at the mission. Spar and Woolworths turned their back on aQuellé despite the Ekhamanzi Springs bottling company sending a letter to all its customers and partners in defence of the mission.
“We invite you to visit the mission and see for yourself that the allegations against the mission are unfounded,” part of the letter said.
KwaSizabantu, which is also being accused of laundering more than R100 million, was founded by evangelist Erlo Stegen in 1970.
In a series of News24 reports — supported by accounts from victims — information surfaced that some church members suffered physical, sexual and psychological abuse. The mission also faces accusations of fraud.
A number supermarkets, both nationally and in Pietermaritzburg, also procure vegetables and fruit from the mission’s agricultural business.
According to information obtained from the website of the mission and its businesses, Ekhamanzi Springs and Emseni Farming employ more than 500 people. The businesses have funded charity organisations stretching from the Drakensberg to eThekwini.
Through sponsorship from aQuellé, the Midmar Mile supports several initiatives around Pietermaritzburg to the tune of R4 million annually.
While allegations have resulted in the retailers cutting ties with the mission’s businesses, Midmar event organiser Wayne Riddin was by late yesterday afternoon still firmly behind aQuellé.
“I don’t subscribe to the idea considering people guilty until they are proven innocent. If ever there are allegations against either aQuellé or the mission, then let them be investigated.
“It is only after the courts have ruled on the matter that people can pass judgment. As things stand, I have not been provided with any evidence which can convince me to cut ties with aQuellé,” he said.
While the Pietermaritzburg and Midlands Chamber of Business (PMCB) has called for a speedy conclusion to the investigations into the mission and its businesses, saying it was concerned about the damage the allegations might cause to the reputation of the businesses and brands of their local partners and customers.
“While it is important for everyone to wait until the outcome of the investigations, unfortunately the reality is that allegations alone can do a lot of damage to the brand of a business,” said PMCB chief executive Melanie Veness.
Mission hit by business boycott
Economic Development MEC Nomusa Dube-Ncube said while the department was doing everything to ensure the growth and development of businesses in KwaZulu-Natal, it viewed the issue of human rights abuse in a serious light.
“We have noted reports in various media platforms regarding what is happening in KwaSizabantu. At this stage, I wish to reiterate the position of the department that those who are found to be involved in any form of abuse of women and children must never find any place in our society,” she said.
“I wish to applaud an ethical posture displayed by some fellow industry players in halting business relationships with organisations that are alleged to be involved in the violation of human rights of women and children,” she added.
Other KwaSizabantu customers such as Pick n Pay and Checkers, said they were assessing the risks of being associated with the mission’s businesses.
aQuellé has announced that the company has appointed an external panel to investigate the allegations contained in the News24 articles, which it regards as vicious.