The Competition Commission has warned schools forcing parents to buy pricey uniforms from certain outfitters that this is an anti-competitive conduct. Picture: Bongani Shilubane/Pretoria News

Pretoria – Schools forcing parents to buy uniforms at specific suppliers without a competitive bidding process are due for a rude awakening, the Competition Commission has warned.

The commission said it was investigating complaints by parents of exorbitant prices charged for school uniforms, and the tendency of forcing them to buy them at a specific contracted supplier.

The 2017 school year began last week amid a mad dash to buy school uniforms. It is widely accepted that last-minute shopping forces people to buy school uniforms at higher prices without having had time to compare.

And parents have indicated they had no option as schools only referred them to a single supplier.

Competition Commission spokesperson Sipho Ngwema said: “The trends we are picking up is that there is widespread anti-competitive conduct in both public and private schools, and parents are being forced to buy from one supplier.

“Most of the time, if not all the time, those contracts are exclusive and awarded without any bidding.”

This industry is believed to be worth R10 billion, and schools also sell uniforms as a way of raising funds.

“There can be many reasons why schools need to raise money, but one of South Africa's laws is the Competition Act which prescribes how business should be done.

"The mandate of schools is to educate, not to be in business,” Ngwema said.

“One of the purposes of the Competition Act is to provide consumers with competitive prices and product choices. Also, to provide markets that consumers have access to, so they can freely select the quality and variety of goods and services they desire.

“It is clear that this is not how things should be conducted. That is why we are worried about these exclusive contracts which most of the time have no ending – and some of them have been going on for years and decades.

“We are gathering that information. We're getting complaints every day. We are going to make an announcement very soon concerning concrete steps to be taken going forward.

“By this time next year everything should be clear and there should not be any of this conduct.”

Ngwema said they had been working with the Department of Education for a number of years in trying to educate schools.

“Circulars have been circulated to schools about the act and how business should be done. If many of the complaints are anything to go by, then it means there is widespread defiance.”

He could not share examples of the types of complaints the parents laid or if there would be criminal charges against anyone involved. It was too early to tell, he said.

However, there must be a fair and transparent bidding process when schools choose school uniform suppliers.

The commission would work with the Education Department to make sure that by this time next year the practice had been stopped.

Education MEC Panyaza Lesufi said the department normally appointed forensic investigators when there were complaints. Thereafter, corrective measures were put in place.

When criminal aspects were found, they were reported to the SAPS.

“The problem is governing bodies signing contracts going beyond their terms, which is against the law. You can’t have a long contract that goes beyond your term of office. The South African Schools Act is very clear on this. We remain firm in fighting this kind of behaviour,” Lesufi said.

Ngwema said parents should report wrong conduct to the Competition Commission.

Pretoria News