Thabitha Malinga vs. Sowetan


Mon, Dec 3, 2018

Ruling by the Press Ombud

30 November 2018

Particulars

Complainant: Ms Thabitha Malinga, founder and managing director of Thabie Mobile Spa (Pty) Ltd  

Date of article: 28 September 2018

Headline: Spa owner accused of school scam

Page: 13

Online: Yes

Author of article: Promise Marupeng

Respondent: Wendy Pretorius, managing editor

Meeting: On 26 November 2018 the Ombud held a meeting with the parties at his offices in Johannesburg

Complaint                                            

The gist of Malinga’s complaint is that the:

  • article falsely stated that her academy was not registered or accredited with the Services Seta; and
  • journalist did not give her reasonable time to comment.

In documentation other than the formal complaint, Malinga:

  • says the name of the source mentioned in the story, Ms Boitswarelo Molefe, is not correct, as the source in fact was Ms Tshepo Chidi – who was related to the reporter; and
  • admits that TMS was not registered, but adds that it had a Service Level Agreement with the Seta – which allowed her to operate.

The text

The article was about Malinga, who was accused of scamming a group of Tembisa students of their school fees paid into her unregistered beauty school (which reportedly was not accredited by the Services Seta).

The arguments

Registered, accredited

MALINGA says she has proof and documentation that her business was properly registered.

She supplies me with the following details:

  • TMS Beauty Academy is registered under the registration number 2018/456765/07;
  • Its reference number from the QCTO: SSETA/20180914/321 (received on September 14);
  • Qualification Title : BEAUTY AND NAIL TECHNOLOGY;
  • Qualification ID: 80646;
  • NQF level: 4;
  • Credits: 120; and
  • A service level agreement has been signed with a Seta moderator.

She submits she was sponsored by Shell SA, and argues that a company of its caliber will not sponsor an institution that is not registered or accredited.

PRETORIUS says that on August 27, the Services Seta telephonically informed the journalist that the beauty academy was not accredited or registered. This, she adds, was confirmed by the Seta’s Masechaba Mohatlane on October 17 (via email).

She says the newspaper spoke to Boitswarelo Molefe and three other former students who had experienced similar problems. She adds that the police confirmed they were investigating the matter. She says she is not sure Keabetswe Molefe, to whom Malinga refers, is the same person as in the article.

The managing editor says the article did not make mention of Shell – she says Marupeng contacted Shell only after the article was published (after sources contacted the reporter saying Malinga had referred to Shell).

She says the reporter emailed Dineo Pooe, of Shell, on October 1. Pooe responded the next day as follows: “We are aware of the matter that cites TMS Beauty Academy in an alleged malpractice. We are not in a position to comment on the merits as the matter is still under investigation. We will therefore allow the law to take its course before we determine the next steps. We would like to emphasise that Shell is committed to business partnerships imbedded in ethics and compliance. Our general business principles and our values are shaped by honesty, integrity and respect.”

Right of reply

MALINGA says Marupeng has previously tried to get hold of her telephonically. However, she says, she was not sure who she was and she therefore refused to comment or disclose any personal details to her.

She did, though, agree that if she sent her an email, with a signature, she would respond. This never happened.

She says the journalist sent her an SMS at 23:00 the night before publication, telling her that she did not respond to her “email”, and adding that she would therefore go ahead and print the story without her response.

However, the fact of the matter is that the journalist sent the email to an incorrect address. She argues that the email had to bounce back to her, and that the reporter must have known that.

She concludes that, if she were in a position to respond to Marupeng’s questions, the journalist would have known that the allegations in question were false.

PRETORIUS says readers alerted Sowetan to the story in August 2018, alleging that the spa was scamming its students. This came after the newspaper had run a story on Malinga’s spa on 14 November 2017 in the job market section, highlighting her achievements.

She says that on August 27, the Services Seta telephonically informed the journalist that the beauty academy was not accredited or registered. The following day, the managing editor continues, the reporter asked Malinga for comment, upon which she promised to meet her at Sowetan’s offices. However, Pretorius says she failed to do so despite numerous follow-up calls regarding the promised meeting.

During one of these calls, Malinga asked the reporter to email her questions, which the reporter did on August 30. Unfortunately, she incorrectly typed in the email address.

Then, on September 26, the reporter texted Malinga, asking her to respond to the sent email and informing her that the story would be published two days later. However, she says, Malinga’s response came too late. She says Malinga responded to the message at 4:05 on 27 September 2018, to which the reporter again asked for her comment at 10:16.

On September 27, the duty news editor (Isaac Mahlangu) also phoned Malinga and requested her side of the story. Malinga then accused the reporter of harassing her, told the news editor to go ahead with the story, and threatened to take action before hanging up.

Pretorius says at no point did Malinga inform the reporter or duty news editor she did not receive the email. She also points out that the story was eventually published on September 28, a month after initial contact was made with Malinga.

Analysis

At the meeting, it became clear that Malinga’s business was indeed not registered with the Seta – but also that she had a service level agreement (SLA) which allowed her to operate legally. I concluded that, while the suggestion of her business having illegally operated was false and unfair, the newspaper in fact was not to be blamed for it because it had no reason to enquire about an SLA, and also because Malinga refused to give information over the phone.

We have therefore reached consensus that the following text should be published, both in print and online:

In an article, published on September 28 and headlined Spa owner accused of school scam, we reported that Thabitha Malinga operated the Thabie Mobile Spa and TMS Beauty Academy without being registered.

The article was about Malinga, who was accused of scamming a group of Tembisa students of their school fees paid into her unregistered beauty school (which reportedly was not accredited by the Services Seta).

The suggestion was that she did not operate lawfully.

Malinga complained to the Press Ombudsman, who held a meeting with us and the complainant. It became clear that she had the necessary permission to operate her business, which registration was pending.

She made headlines last year after her business took off, making appearances on TV shows and in numerous newspapers.

She said the academy was operating legally as she had a service level agreement with the Services Seta, and  that the organisation has provided her with an independent moderator who conducted examinations.

Johan Retief

Press Ombud