World Consumer Rights Day - Do we have cause for celebration in SA?

World Consumer Rights Day - Do we have cause for celebration in SA?

The Consumer Protection Act makes us among the most protected consumers in the world, in theory. But rights are worthless if there are no consequences when service providers deny us those rights. For many people, that’s the reality.

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For starters, think about trying to make contact with a company in order to raise a dispute about being overcharged, for example. Given the prohibitive costs of airtime and data in this country, plus the investment in time it requires to fight for justice, I’m sure many people just don’t bother.

Every day, I hear from consumers who have been given a raw deal by companies which clearly aren’t at all interested in doing the legal, moral, ethical thing. 

They’ve bought dud cars, had their possessions damaged by a removals company, been denied the refund they’re legally entitled to when they want to return goods they’ve bought online. And amazingly, many of the transgressors are major national companies who really should know better, eight years down the line.

What can consumers do to get justice, apart from embarking on extremely costly and time-consuming litigation?

These are their options:

  • Complain to the Ombudsman’s office of that particular industry;
  • Lodge a complaint with their provincial consumer affairs office;
  • Open a case with Small Claims Court in the area if their claim is no more than R20,000;
  • Email a consumer journalist; or
  • Vent on social media.

All of those are free services, except for the Small Claims Court, where you have to pay the relatively small cost of the summons. 

If the banking or insurance ombudsman offices rule in your favour, those companies will almost certainly heed the ruling, but with the others, not necessarily. In fact, in many cases, they don’t even respond to the Ombud and that’s the end of that. File closed.

A couple of years ago, a Cape Town woman bought a dud of a Passat from a small independent motor dealer for R61,000. When it broke down within a week, the owner of the company refused to repair it at his cost, as required by the CPA. If something malfunctions within six months of purchase, the company has to take responsibility, provided the consumer didn’t cause the problem. The woman went through the entire chain of consumer protection and emerged with no justice at all.

She began with her provincial consumer affairs office, then took her complaint to the Motor Industry Ombud, which ruled in her favour and said the dealer must pay for the repair.

He didn’t, so the Ombud referred the case to the National Consumer Commission, which took it to the Tribunal as a test case. 

In September 2017, the Tribunal found the dealership guilty of prohibited conduct and ordered the owner to not only refund the woman in full, but to pay a further R100,000 to the National Revenue Fund within 30 business days. 

It was hailed as a “major new consumer protection decision”; a strong warning to all those other motor dealers who are doing business as if the Consumer Protection Act doesn’t apply to them.

But the dealership didn’t pay either amount. Instead, he closed the dealership and last I heard he was selling cars off his Facebook page.

It’s a criminal offence to fail to abide by an order of the National Consumer Tribunal, but a year and a half later, nothing has happened and the woman hasn’t seen a cent of her R61,000.

The good news is we consumers do have power; we just need to learn to use it properly. 

Given that enforcement is so often a problem, we have to do it for ourselves. Like this:

That way you’ll know, for example, that if you buy something online and when it arrives it’s not what you were expecting, you have seven days to return it (at your cost) for a full refund.

READ: The new cellphone data regulations in a nutshell

  • Do your research. Before choosing to do business with a company do the Google thing: find out what experiences others have had with them. Pay particular attention to after sales service. 
  • Get into the habit of meticulously documenting your interactions with companies. Who you spoke to and when and what they said - get as much in writing as possible.
  • When things start to go wrong, document everything. Photograph, video, record - you can do it all with your smartphone; easy peasy.
  • Email the company and in a calm but assertive tone, say how you’ve been let down, what you want them to do to fix it, and by when. Be very specific and always give a deadline.
  • If the company won’t do the right thing and having made sure that your gripe is a legitimate one, hit social media with your story.  

As long as it’s true - and no, you are NOT entitled to a refund if you return a purchase, not unless it develops some kind of defect within six months of purchase - and in the public interest, it’s not defamation.

Even if you don’t get justice, you’ll be helping others to protect themselves, because when they do an internet search for the company, they’ll very likely find your post.

So that’s my message for this Consumer Rights Day. Let us do it for ourselves.

To contact Wendy, go to her Facebook page and click on the send email tab.

In case you missed any of the past Consumerwatch shows, find them below:

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