CONTRARY to the impression that the National Consumer Commission is hiding in a corner, licking its wounds after last year’s legal lashings, it has been feverishly at work behind the scenes.
Last year the commission’s reputation as the custodian of the Consumer Protection Act took a huge knock as it lost one legal battle after another against big business. Consumer confidence also plunged as complaints were not addressed.
The commission ended the year with a public fallout between former head Mamodupi Mohlala-Mulaudzi and Trade and Industry Minister Rob Davies that saw her contract not being extended. Since his appointment in September last year, acting commissioner Ebrahim Mohamed has focused on setting up the systems, controls and processes to restore trust. He has met big business and the National Consumer Tribunal to make amends.
The commission is still saddled with a backlog of 9,965 complaints, several vacancies and "challenges" stemming from previous decisions. Mr Mohamed has set up a task team to deal with the backlog.
His influence at the commission has not gone unnoticed by business, which has applauded him for reaching out to establish a new working relationship after the "adversarial" approach under the previous leadership.
Mr Mohamed’s experience as a former chief director in the office of consumer protection at the Department of Trade and Industry, and his close involvement in all the processes leading up to the promulgation of the Consumer Protection Act, have been described as "refreshing".
He speaks enthusiastically about the act: "It is a wonderful, powerful act. It favours consumers, as it must, but it also promotes fair business and fair trade practices. Business is also taken into account and the economy is taken into account. It is not consumers-at-all-cost to the detriment of the economy."
All the compliance notices issued by the former commissioner against Vodacom, Cell C and MTN had been set aside on procedural grounds. Others who have had their notices set aside include MultiChoice, Auction Alliance, BMW, Peugeot Citroën and the City of Johannesburg.
The compliance notice issued in the Auction Alliance matter related to a complaint by businesswomen Wendy Appelbaum about a ghost bidder at an auction in December 2011.
In the City of Johannesburg case the commission issued compliance notices without investigating the complaints; in the Vodacom matter it issued the compliance notice to the wrong business entity.
The commission was criticised for taking consumer complaints on face value without doing a proper investigation. It also tried to withdraw compliance notices that it did not have the power to withdraw.
"The mere fact that all those compliance notices were set aside does not mean nothing has been happening since. The commission has established working relations with the cellphone providers regarding complaints and the resolution of complaints," Mr Mohamed says.
"Certain contracts and terms and conditions have been changed, to the benefit of consumers. The commission is working with the City of Johannesburg to find amicable solutions to the problems it has."
If "implemented reasonably", the act can do wonders for South Africa in promoting consumer protection and, through encouraging competition, in driving prices down, he says.
The commission has decided not to take the Auction Alliance matter any further, but it will look into the auction industry and its systemic issues.
It has failed in all its court processes in the Auction Alliance matter. The commission expects its legal bill in this matter alone to be more than R2.5m.
Mr Mohamed’s predecessor, who initiated most of the legal battles, used to complain publicly about the lack of funds to execute the mandate.
"I do not believe one can go out and say the department refuses to give me money for this, that and the other if it has never been budgeted for and never been part of the Medium Term Expenditure Framework process," Mr Mohamed says.
"The issue is whether I have planned in accordance with the framework’s allocations. Of course, budgets are constrained and departments are struggling. We have got to learn to live with what we have and do the best we can within those constraints."