Commission reflects on COVID-19 lessons

Tuesday, August 25, 2020

While the COVID-19 pandemic continues to wreak havoc across the world, it has also brought key lessons for not only individuals but also business and government alike.

As more continues to be discovered about the pandemic, its arrival has tested the mettle and resilience of communities, as citizens, business and state institutions have been forced to adapt to a new way of life.

Recently South Africa’s National Consumer Commission (NCC) reflected on the impact of COVID-19 on its operations.

The commission, which is responsible for administering the Consumer Protection Act (CPA), is the primary regulator of consumer-business interaction in South Africa.

In March, South Africa put in place a national lockdown aimed at curbing the spread of the virus as citizens came to grips with the need to remain indoors while also adjusting to wearing a facemask when heading to the shops.

In addition to the loaf of bread, carton of milk, and the occasional chocolate bar or two, citizens were heading to the shops to buy supplies of facemasks, sanitisers and latex gloves.

For a while, shelves meant to contain products like sanitisers stood empty in some stores and when re-stocked, were soon empty again.

 “During this period of COVID-19, we started with this issue of price gouging where consumers were really struggling with issues of prices that were being escalated,” says acting NCC Commissioner Thezi Mabuza.

In the period between March and August 2020, the Commission was inundated with complaints that relate to price escalations.

About 3000 complaints relating to prices were reported to the Commission, which is an agency of the Department of Trade, Industry and Competition (DTIC).

The complaints were addressed in subsequent investigations.

Some suppliers admitted to contravening the CPA and as a result, instead of refunding consumers, suppliers are atoning for their misdemeanours by donating proceeds from the sales to charity.

“Because the goods in question were fast moving goods, they will donate masks and sanitisers to non-profit organisations,” she tells SAnews.

On the other side of the fence, there have been suppliers who maintain that they have not contravened the CPA.

 “[In such instances] we really had to take them to the Competition Tribunal so that the matter will be adjudicated upon,” says the acting commissioner and adds that one company has been slapped with a R100 million fine.

The chaos brought by the pandemic has also resulted in flight cancelations among others, which suppliers could not honour.  In cases where services could not be rendered, engagements were held and the issues resolved.

Sometimes complaints were referred to the Consumer Goods and Service Ombudsman (CGSO) for mediation while work continued to ensure that the CPA is adhered to.

“We entered into agreements with some of the suppliers to say that they either offer vouchers, which are not limited, for consumers to access the service at a later stage, and, where possible, refund consumers.

Up to now, indeed, we have received very few complaints where consumers are coming back to say the supplier is not willing to give the voucher.”

Among the other range of complaints received by the Commission, were those around the quick depletion of allocated data and cases where routers were not functioning properly, as more South Africans started working from home.

While some of these complaints were referred to the Independent Communications Authority of South Africa (ICASA), the NCC intervened in complaints relating to gadgets, router and handsets as stipulated in the CPA.

“Most of the suppliers when contacted are very quick to remedy the situation, to make sure that consumers are either refunded or the devices are exchanged.”

A recent joint law enforcement operation slammed the brakes on a sophisticated pyramid scheme that fleeced 230 000 unsuspecting investors of millions of rands amid the COVID-19 lockdown.

Details of the pyramid scheme were revealed by the National Prosecuting Authority, Financial Intelligence Centre (FIC) and the NCC at a press briefing.

The scheme was probed by the NCC after an East London resident laid a complaint.

Mabuza thanked South Africans for remaining vigilant of their rights in the course of the COVID-19 storm.

“What I want to appreciate is the support we have received from South Africans, especially around the issue of price gouging wherein we had the highest number of complaints in just one quarter,” says the acting commissioner.

There were, however, challenges around small shops, like spaza shops where citizens could not get recourse.

“Because of the lockdown, we were unable to travel. Most people did not get recourse because in a spaza shop, there’s no email and there’s no registered director. We ended up not being able to finalise some of those complaints up until lockdown level 3.”

The CPA requires the NCC as chief regulator of consumer-business interaction in the country, to ensure that processes and rules of the Competition Tribunal are followed when dealing with complaints.

“One of the rules of the Tribunal is that we make sure that a complaint is actually signed by the complainant. So you can imagine [what happens in a case] where a gogo doesn’t have email.”

To remedy such situations, the Commission has set up a toll-free number (0800 014 880) to enable consumers to file complaints.

The pandemic has provided the NCC with learning opportunities.

“The crisis presented opportunities for the commission to learn. For instance in most cases NCC officials do not have to go and serve an investigation certificate.

“So we’ve come up with mechanisms to either call the supplier to say can you allow us to serve you through email?’ If they say yes, that makes it quicker even in dealing with the matter. Also with consumers, we had to come up with better ways of saying ‘can you consent through an email to say that this is your complaint, even if you did not sign it?’” she remarks.

Change, it is often said, is the only constant in life and the NCC continues to refine its operations to meet the needs of South Africa’s people.

“These are the systems that we now have to set up and ensure that people can at least file a complaint by just using their cellphones,” said Mabuza.

While the race to rid the world of the virus continues, the pandemic has provided an opportunity for all sectors of society to reflect, to learn and take action to refine operations. –