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MiWay and the fake email: our reasons for not taking legal action

This saga exploded ten days ago as a story of a fake racist email (that caused untold hurt and anger among all concerned citizens, but more so among Black citizens) that eventually developed into a story of forgiveness, hope and reconciliation. It also led to massive personal growth for me and many of my colleagues.

The easy part of the dilemma was to catch the perpetrator. The harder part was the decision on what steps to take next. The easiest option would have been to simply take legal action. The more challenging option, however, was to consider other alternatives that take the specific circumstances of this matter into account and attempt to break the current negative spiral of racial hatred in the country.

Our young democracy has had a legendary example of forgiveness and reconciliation in Nelson Mandela. We dare not forget it. He chose to forgive the racist murderers of the apartheid regime for the hope and dream of a unified and reconciled nation.

This doesn't mean we should sweep naked racism under the carpet. It should be exposed and rejected with contempt. The lesson we learnt from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission is that for reconciliation to happen, the truth needs to be exposed and sincere remorse needs to be shown.

I contacted Mr Madlala and asked to meet him to discuss the mess that he caused. I wanted to understand what motivated him to act so irrationally. I also wanted to know if he felt he was treated poorly or in a racist way by any of MiWay's staff. He agreed to meet. I got the impression that he was under severe pressure.

Mr Madlala is a 32-year old entrepreneur who holds down three jobs simultaneously.

The repudiation of his claim was a terrible financial knock for him. His unhappiness was aggravated by the fact the MiWay failed to send him the recordings of conversations with MiWay that he requested. It was a mistake. We sent it to the Ombudsman but neglected to send it to him. It did not affect the merits of the case - the Ombudsman still ruled in our favour - but I can well understand that our service shortcoming upset him terribly. We will never know whether his behaviour would have been more rational had the recordings been provided to him. This is still no justification for his irrational and unacceptable behaviour. It is, however, in my opinion, mitigating circumstances that should be taken into account.

Mr Madlala looked me in the eye and offered me a sincere apology for his senseless behaviour.

He wanted to atone for the folly of his ways that turned his and MiWay's worlds into sheer hell. He also offered to apologise to the two innocent staff members implicated in the fake email and to the nation for fanning the flames of racial hatred. I believe his remorse was genuine.

Mr Madlala also agreed to make a strong statement against racism and the misuse of social media, and also to talk on these topics at schools where MiWay has CSI programs going.

I was pleased to hear from Mr Madlala that he was never in any way treated in a racist manner by anyone at MiWay.

I came to the conclusion that Mr Madlala was not a social media terrorist, but rather an impulsive young man who made a terrible error in judgment that will haunt him for a long time to come. I experienced his apology as sincere and immediately accepted it. The world cannot function without forgiveness. An approach of "an eye for an eye" leads to more violence, intolerance, hatred and war. Forgiveness, on the other hand, opens the door for hope and reconciliation.

The fact remains, he broke the law and implicated two innocent people who received hate mail and death threats as a result of his irrational behaviour. We can never condone his behaviour.

I decided not to prosecute Mr Madlala, or to institute civil action, for a number of reasons, namely:

  1. MiWay contributed to his anger by not sending the recordings to him as per his request. I detest it when big corporates shy away from taking accountability for their mistakes. We work with people and people make mistakes. If you mess up, admit it, take corrective action, and move on.
  2. Mr Madlala has learnt a hard lesson and will have to live with the consequences. He might lose his job and will battle to find another job in future. He will forever be associated with this incident. He will face the consequences on social media. Google doesn't forget.
  3. Mr Madlala acknowledged the wrongfulness of his actions and apologised to MiWay, the two staff members and the nation. He showed genuine remorse. He also agreed to talk publicly against racism and the dangers of social media.
  4. The two implicated staff members accepted his apology (he still needs to apologise to them in person) and indicated they don't want to press charges (I salute them for their amazing generosity of spirit).
  5. The damage to MiWay's brand, if measured against policies cancelled, has fortunately been insignificant. Time will tell what the long-term impact will be, but we are not seeing a large scale exodus of clients.
  6. I didn’t deem it in the public (or MiWay's) interest to have drawn out legal processes that have the potential to exacerbate racial tensions in the country.
  7. Lastly, MiWay's innocence was successfully proven. 

Was justice served?

I believe so. Justice is not something that can only be achieved in a court of law, and retribution is not always appropriate for justice to be served. I believe Mr Madlala has suffered a lot - emotionally, socially and potentially also financially - and I believe he has already been rehabilitated and that he could potentially become an ambassador against racism and social media abuse. The fact that he was caught out so quickly will also serve as a deterrent against those who might have contemplated similar senseless deeds.

I accept that not everyone will agree with me, and that is understandable.

This is a complex case with different angles that all deserve consideration. We all look at the world from our own unique perspectives, which implies that we often look at the same situation but see something different.  If we have tolerance for our differences and take the time to listen and reflect, we might find each other on a human level and make the world a better place.

What about the two innocent staff members who received hate mail and death threats?

The mere fact that they chose not to press charges doesn't mean they haven't suffered deeply. There is still a lot that needs to be done to repair the damage. I am committed to seeing this process through.

A major lesson from this saga for me is to never underestimate the racial sensitivities in this country and to work even harder to promote racial harmony. Although MiWay was not found to be racist, it would be wrong of us to not ask ourselves what more we could do to promote transformation.

Another lesson is the importance of building a strong brand and corporate culture and to have good and loyal people. It helps to weather the storm. What happened to MiWay could happen to any business...

On the positive side, this crisis proved again the quality of the amazing MiWay people who worked long hours and fought hard to not only defend the brand, but also spread the message of the awesome MiWay success story.

In the final analysis, this saga has challenged all of us to reflect on the kind of world we want to live in and leave behind for our children and grandchildren.

"Forgiveness liberates the soul. It removes fear. That is why it is such a powerful weapon" - Nelson Mandela

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