A picture of Pearl Msomi, of KwaMakhutha, with the caption “This is the Pearl in question. We were nearly sold off, my God”, speaking in IsiZulu, has been shared widely on Christian WhatsApp groups. In the accompanying voice note a woman is heard saying how great God was after the family, with the help of the police, managed to find her daughter, Thando.
The woman, who gets emotional towards the end of the note, says Thando was last seen with Pearl, a UKZN student who got other students jobs doing promotions.
The voice note claims Pearl was tracked down to a house in Westville and she led police to a flat on Pixley KaSeme (West) Street where Thando and other young girls were found.
“Beautiful girls, from DUT, some from Berea College, some from UKZN. She was looking for buyers to sell them to,” said the woman in the 10-minute voice note.
The woman alleges that the Pearl in question was going to sell the young woman to the highest bidders, outside South Africa.
While the woman does not mention Pearl’s surname, Pearl Msomi, the mother of a 15-month-old toddler, has had her picture circulated on social media as the Pearl in question.
After being sent the voice note for verification, police said they had not received any reports of such a case, and enquiries with the police stations concerned led to a dead end in confirming the alleged incident.
“Please do not circulate the photo as you do not have facts,” said Colonel Thembeka Mbele in a written response.
Lieutenant-Colonel Thulani Zwane said a case of crimen injuria was opened.
Social media expert Sarah Hoffman, of The Digital Law Company, said that, in general, you could only name an accused once they had been asked to plead in court.
“In cases of indecency, extortion or sexual offences, you can only name them once they have been asked to plead in court - although, in practice ,this applies from when they appear in court for the first time,” she said.
Hoffman said one could not name an accused at all in cases of divorce, domestic violence or anything to do with children.
“We appreciate the great public interest in naming and shaming in cases of crime, especially in something as emotive as human trafficking. However, in the event that this is not true, this could have major reputational consequences for the person concerned and there could be legal consequences for those that share images or content relating to an accused,” she said.
Hoffman added that in this particular case, anyone who shared the voice note and or the image could be liable to a charge of defamation, crimen injuria or criminal defamation.
“It would be in the best interests of everyone not to share content like that. It would also be best that everyone complied with the request of the police to stop sharing this content,” she said.
Msomi said she had never been a student at UKZN and had taken the year off to stay at home with her daughter after graduating from Rosebank College last May.
“I wish the woman who claims to be Thando’s mother would come forward and say she was not talking about me, Pearl Msomi, but she hasn’t, despite seeing all the activity around her voice note on social media,” she said.
Msomi said she now feared for her life as she was receiving threats on Facebook.
Three days ago WhatsApp vice-president for policy and communications Victoria Grand announced that they were imposing a limit of five shares of a message all around the world. This was in an attempt to stop the spread of hoaxes and rumours.