SA public urged to take advantage of consumer laws, commission

Thursday, March 31, 2011

Pretoria - Complain, complain, complain - that is the message from National Consumer Commissioner Mamodupi Mohlala to the South African public.

"I can't say it enough - complain. Take advantage of the commission because at the end of the day, you can have the best laws in the world, you can have the most well equipped commission but if you don't tell us what the problems are - we have no way of knowing," she says.

Speaking to BuaNews, Mohlala described the Consumer Protection Act (CPA) as a revolutionary piece of legislation and urged South African consumers to take full advantage of both the CPA and the Commission.

According to the Department of Trade and Industry, the CPA aims to promote and advance the social and economic welfare of South Africans through a legal framework for the achievement of a fair, accessible, responsible and sustainable market.

The Commission is responsible for implementing the CPA and will begin operating on 1 April, when the CPA comes into effect.

Mohlala believes that if the CPA is properly applied, South Africa could end up with the happiest consumers in the world.

Consumers have not had a channel to turn to where their complaints could be properly addressed, now, they can turn to the National Consumer Commission (NCC).

However, studies show that South African consumers generally do not complain, possibly because they believe no action will be taken, Mohlala adds.

It's a belief the Commission wants to dispel and Mohlala believes the only way to do so will be by proving that it can deliver.

"We will be trying very hard to show our effectiveness to the South African public so that we can grow that confidence and they know if they come to us they will get a resolution," she says.

To spur South Africans into action, the Commission will also identify and conduct in-depth investigations into three industries each year, to determine if the industries comply with the CPA.

If there is no compliance, the Commission will inform the public of the transgressions noted, requesting consumers who have been victim of the transgressions to lodge a complaint.

"We are hoping in doing this, we will do some of the spade work for the consumer so that they then have a channel to air their complaints." 

The Commission has already identified the retail and manufacturing, medical and pharmaceutical, and Information Communication and Technology sectors.

Of particular interest to consumers would be the sections of the act that deal with contract terms, she says.

The CPA allows the consumer to terminate a fixed-term contract by giving 20 business days' notice in writing and a fixed-term contract cannot be automatically renewed at the end of the term.

Direct marketing is also dealt with in the CPA, with a five day cooling off period for transactions resulting from direct marketing.

The other good news is the introduction of an Opt Out Register.

A consumer who does not want to be contacted by direct marketing companies can ask the Commission to put them on the register, Mohlala explains.

Direct marketing companies will be obliged to consult the register and ideally should not be contacting anyone who appears on it.

If they do contact someone on the register, the company in question will be given a warning and if they persist, a process will be started against them and they could be fined R1 million or 10 percent of their turnover.

Explaining the process followed once a complaint is received, Mohlala says the consumer will be asked to attend a hearing, which is the alternative dispute resolution mechanism.

The party accused of the transgression is contacted and asked to respond to the complaint within a certain time.

The parties then meet and the Commission will attempt to mediate a settlement between the two parties. 

If the matter is not resolved at that level, it will be investigated and if there is no case to answer, the complaint will be dismissed.

If there is a case, the Commission will issue a compliance notice where it informs the party there has been a transgression and instructs it on how to remedy the situation within a given time frame.

If they fail to do so, the Commission will approach the tribunal for a fine of the determined amount and if there is no compliance, it will issue a compliance order, which is then endorsed by the tribunal.

"If we feel it constitutes a criminal transgression, we will also refer it to the National Prosecuting Authority," says Mohlala.

Mohlala adds that where a party is willing to admit it has done wrong, a consent order can be reached.

The Commission can impose a fine of up to R1 million or 10 percent of turnover, whichever is the higher, on those found guilty of contravening the CPA.

To ensure that all South African consumers take advantage of the services offered by the Commission, imbizos will be held in all provinces to raise awareness. While there, officials from the Commission will also collect complaints from the locals.

Every three months, the Commission will dispatch people to the most rural parts of the country to ensure that disgruntled consumers in those areas are also given a voice.

The Commission has jurisdiction over any economic or commercial transaction that takes place within the borders of South Africa.

However, this does not extend to labour disputes and credit agreements.

"We do not have jurisdiction over the terms and conditions of the credit agreement but we have jurisdiction if a person is not happy with the quality of the product or the quality of the service," Mohlala clarifies.

The Commission also set itself timeframes. It has committed itself to dealing with complaints within a six-week period and resolving a complaint within six months.