Illustration: Colin Daniel
Durban - IT HAS been more than 18 months since the National Consumer Commission first launched its inquiry into the vacation ownership or timeshare industry, after a lengthy struggle to resolve consumer disputes.

The NCC resorted to the inquiry after exploring other options, as provided for by the Consumer Protection Act (CPA), but without success.

The National Consumer Commissioner Ebrahim Mohamed stressed that the report should be viewed as an inquiry “meant to unravel and understand the complexities of the industry, assess the extent of consumer challenges, and after assessing all facts and balancing them with research, to make recommendations to improve consumer protection within the timeshare industry”.

Mohamed was handed the report at the end of March, and then sent it back to the committee.

In September, it was finally completed, but it was sent to the industry for comment.

He said most of the recommendations related to structural and behavioural problems within the industry.

“As the NCC, we witnessed this when consumers made oral submissions during public hearings held in the nine provinces of our country.

“It was most disturbing and sad to see elderly, vulnerable pensioners sob and plead with government for help and relief at the public hearings. The greatest discomfort I experienced though, was when a Free State-based consumer (relayed) a blow-by-blow account during her oral submission, of how she had planned to take her own life to escape her debt-stricken circumstances, which were occasioned by ‘a mistake’ she made when she signed up for a lifelong ‘timeshare trap’,” said Mohamed.

The report essentially puts the onus on the NCC to enforce the CPA, engage with other role-players, such as the Consumer Goods and Services Ombudsman (CGSO), the National Credit Regulator and others, to educate consumers and make recommendations to the minister.

The commission said it anticipated that its recommendations would be implemented over a medium to long term, as well as in the short term, depending on the willingness of industry to engage in good faith with it and other stakeholders.

The NCC has referred timeshare complaints to the Consumer Goods and Services Ombudsman in recent times, which has facilitated cancellations for consumers.

Mohamed said the biggest issues for consumers related to the points system in the timeshare industry, and not with conventional timeshare.

The report made recommendations to the Minister of Trade and Industry (and called for legislative changes - but that is likely to take a while, since, as the department reminded journalists: “There’s an election coming and it will take a while for people to find their feet” in their positions, so 2019 is not a likely to be the year for change in the industry.

Alex Bosch, the chief operating officer of the Vacation Ownership Association of Southern Africa (Voasa), said he welcomed the report’s release.

He said Voasa would continue to work with the NCC to “achieve the appropriate balance of rights and obligations between consumers and suppliers operating in the industry”.

For now, consumers will be forced to approach the CGSO, who says she is been able to resolve 51% of cases brought to her office. But since the ombud scheme is voluntary, if consumers do not receive satisfaction through that office, it is referred back to the NCC.

The NCC has held discussions with Trade and Industry Minister Rob Davies about the recommendations and he has called on clubs to resolve specific complaints “without any further delay”.