National consumer commissioner Mamodupi Mohlala.

JOSEPH BOOYSEN and SAPA

WITHIN its first week of operation, the newly established National Consumer Commission (NCC) fielded more than 400 complaints, suggesting thousands more would pour in every year. According to recent agency and media reports, the body will launch investigations into three major industries that formed the bulk of complaints from consumers.

The sectors that the commission will target are information and communications technology (ICT), manufacturing, retail and health care and pharmaceuticals.

It was reported that national consumer commissioner Mamodupi Mohlala announced that in the first four days of operation, the commission received more than 400 complaints.

Most were against the City of Johannesburg for its billing crisis, followed by complaints against cellular operators Vodacom, MTN and Cell C. This was with regard to ambiguity of contracts, pricing, faulty new handsets and dropped calls. The commission has also received complaints against Telkom.

Mohlala said that in health care and pharmaceuticals, the commission would also investigate discriminatory rules, such as those prevalent in insurance schemes that barred people who were HIV- positive.

Hospitals and clinics would also be investigated for cleanliness and running times for dispensaries, along with medical claims by traditional healers.

The pharmaceutical industry has been accused of commercialising lotions and hair products that contain ingredients banned in other countries, such as the US.

At the launch of the NCC in Pretoria last month, Minister of Trade and Industry Rob Davies said effective empowerment of consumers would encourage businesses to raise their competitiveness and stimulate innovation as well as product and service choice.

“The consumer commission will be a key pillar in implementing the consumer protection legislation. The (Consumer Protection) act requires that the commission plays an active and proactive role in strengthening consumer protection.

“The act makes provision for a comprehensive and overarching consumer law of general application that will regulate the interaction between businesses and consumers in the marketplace and provides more protection to consumers that was provided for in previous legislation.”

He said the launch of the commission was a culmination of a process dating back to 2004 when a national consumer survey revealed that South Africans had little information about their rights.

“The survey revealed that this ignorance on the part of most consumers, especially those in poor communities and those in rural areas, was leading to a host of abuses. These include misleading and bait advertising, the non-honouring of guarantees, abuse of information, non-disclosure, unfair contract terms and poor product quality,” Davies said.

The act provides for the accreditation of consumer protection groups and support for activities, such as consumer advice, education, publications, research and alternative dispute resolution through mediation and conciliation.

In a statement, the Consumer Protection Forum (CPF) said consumers would benefit from increased levels of protection, mainly due to regulatory measures introduced across different industries.

The forum’s spokesman, Peter Setou, said good progress to protect the consumer had been made on all fronts.

“Whether it is a dispute over contracts or complaints about the quality of products and services, consumers are getting better access to protection, information and advice than ever before.”

The CPF said during the quarter ending 2010, more than 2 332 consumer complaints were finalised by different watchdog bodies, putting more than R18 million back into consumers’ pockets.

The NCC’s manager for compliance, education and awareness, Karin Coode, told the Cape Argus the commission was established as an independent statutory body outside the public service in terms of the new Consumer Protection Act.

She said the system of consumer laws in South Africa before the CPA had been outdated, fragmented and based on principles contrary to the democratic system.

“It did not provide for provisions to empower consumers nor consumer organisations, as it did not give them specific powers in law. SA did not have a comprehensive consumer protection statute that clearly spelt out the rights and obligations of all market participants prior to CPA.”

Coode said in order for consumers to participate effectively in the market economy, it was important that they be accorded basic rights in a comprehensive consumer law that set out guiding principles for market conduct, hence the new act.

“The general mandate of the National Consumer Commission is to promote and support the development of a fair, transparent, sustainable, efficient and effective consumer market and industry.”

She said any consumer, authorised person acting on behalf of another or somebody acting in the interest of an affected group could complain to the commission.

l Consumers can phone the NCC at 086 026 6786, fax to 0861 515 259 or e-mail [email protected]

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