A manufacturer of natural haircare products last month turned to court to obtain an urgent interdict against a former employee, whom it was said had bad- mouthed the company on social media.
Native Child Africa (Pty) Ltd -- a small business that makes and sells natural haircare products -- turned to the Gauteng High Court, Pretoria.
The business was established in 2016. The applicant promoted and sold the products over the internet and in some of the big retail stores.
The applicant asked for an urgent interim interdict to be issued against Mary Akinwale, who was in its employment for about two months. This application was pending the institution of a damages claim against her.
The haircare manufacturer wanted Akinwale to also remove any defamatory posts regarding the company from social media; for her to retract the statements and to apologise to them.
The applicant also recently launched and is running four small natural haircare salons, catering specifically to the needs of the natural hair community.
The applicant has 50 employees and, by implication, supports 50 families.
Akinwale is a quantity surveying student at the University of Pretoria and is a social media influencer with more than 108 000 social media followers across Instagram, TikTok and X (formerly known as Twitter).
It is said that she lives a lavish lifestyle based on her social media posts and, according to her rate card, she charges brands as much as R10 000 for a 60-second video posted on her social media.
In November last year she began publishing a series of what is said to be defamatory statements and videos against the applicant to her more than 108 000 social media followers.
It is alleged that she made defamatory posts and accused the applicant of, among others, exploitation and unethical business practices.
It is claimed that she called on her followers to harass the applicant on its various social media pages; encouraged them to repost her defamatory posts; and told them to go to the applicant’s major retail clients to tell them to stop selling the applicant’s products.
The haircare manufacturer told the court that within about three weeks a more than 80% decline had been witnessed in its revenue over the Black Friday period (compared with revenue achieved in previous years over the same period). A significant dip in product purchase orders was also experienced at one of its major retail clients.
The applicant's brand and goodwill had been tarnished, and the company’s finances had been severely compromised, the court was told.
The applicant said it had sought various means to engage with Akinwale, calling upon her to cease her conduct and to remove and retract her defamatory posts. These efforts were in vain, the court was told.
Akinwale, meanwhile, testified that she did post the posts complained about in the lawsuit.
She said she had taken down the posts as per the requests. She denied that what she ad said is defamatory.
Instead, she testified, what she had said on social media was true. She also complained that the applicant had not paid her what was due nor its ambassadors as per her discussions with them.
She said she was willing to apologise for her posts.
Under cross-examination, she acknowledged that she lied in some of her posts. But, she added, her followers know that “she lies sometimes”.
Acting Judge ENB Khwinana commented that the South African Human Rights Commission, in its social media charter, recognises the perils of ordinary social media users using these various social media platforms to post defamatory content.
These perils are exacerbated when it is a social media influencer using these platforms for that purpose.
The judge said Akinwale did not put up any viable defence to justify any of the defamatory statements.
Regarding her claims that she and others were not paid, the judge said this is plainly false as proof of payments were issued to the court.
“She worked for less than two weeks as a brand ambassador for the applicant and had failed to reach her target as per the agreement with the applicant.
“She then embarked on a campaign to do the exact opposite of what she had engaged with the applicant to do.
“Instead of promoting the brand – she started trashing the applicant’s reputation and goodwill. The applicant says this was done to simply extort payment from the applicant,” the judge said.
Statements made through social media have the potential to reach millions and cause significant damage, he said.
In issuing the interim interdict, the judge also slapped Akinwale with a punitive costs order.