Photo: Pieter du Toit
  • Pick n Pay has cut ties with the water brand aQuellé, a business owned by KwaSizabantu. 
  • The mission in northern KwaZulu-Natal faces allegations of human rights abuses, and accusations of fraud.
  • Other retailers - including Woolworths, Spar, Makro, Game and Food Lover's Market - have also distanced themselves from KwaSizabantu-owned businesses.
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Pick n Pay has decided to stop ordering products from the water brand aQuellé, a business owned by the KwaSizabantu Christian mission in northern KwaZulu-Natal, which has been mired in controversy. 

A series of News24 reports – supported by accounts from victims – surfaced allegations that some church members suffered physical, sexual and psychological abuse. The mission also faces accusations of fraud.

READ | Exodus | The case of the missing millions: Hawks investigating financial fraud at Mission KwaSizabantu

“We note that measures are now in place to investigate the serious allegations. Until these are resolved we will not be buying product from aQuellé,” Pick n Pay spokesperson Tamra Veley told Business Insider South Africa.

Two weeks ago, Pick n Pay reached out to KwaSizabantu for answers following reports of gross human rights violations and abuse.  "We have seen these serious allegations and have asked the supplier to give us their response," the retailer said at the time.

On Tuesday, it made a decision to cut ties with the brand.

Along with aQuellé, KwaSizabantu owns Emseni Farming, which supplied peppers to Woolworths and other fruit and vegetables to Checkers, Shoprite, and Spar. 

In reaction to the News24 reports, first Woolworths, then Massmart-owned Makro and Game, as well as Spar and Food Lover’s Market, all cut ties with the KwaSizabantu businesses.

See also | KwaSizabantu 'cult': Woolworths halts buying from supplier, offers to help authorities

The Commission for the Promotion and Protection of the Rights of Cultural, Religious and Linguistic Communities this week started hearings into allegations of human rights abuses at KwaSizabantu, and the Human Rights Commission has launched its own investigation.

See also | aQuellé pulled from shelves at Makro, Game - as Food Lover's also cuts ties with ‘cult’ companies

While there are as yet no legal findings against KwaSizabantu and its associated businesses, companies who sell their products have a responsibility to interrogate the accusations, according to Paul Voster, research specialist at The Ethics Institute of South Africa.

“Doing nothing is not an answer here. It shows that those organisations are taking a relativist view and they may be selling a product that may be used to cause harm, and that is ultimately breaking trust with the consumer who is very picky and has many different options available to them.”

No company can distance itself from its supply chain, adds Daniel Malan, assistant professor in business ethics at Trinity Business School in Dublin, citing labour scandals at Nike in the past few years.

“All companies should therefore ensure that they are familiar with, and comfortable with, the ethical behaviour of their suppliers," Malan said.

“Although the technical term of 'innocent until proven guilty' applies in theory, serious allegations of this nature deserve swift and unambiguous action, especially when they come from credible sources. Failure to do so could have devastating effects on the reputation of a company."

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