One of the most frustrating cases that Magauta Mphahlele, the Ombudsman for Consumer Goods and Services (CGSO), had to deal with in the past six months was from a consumer who believed the generic battery he bought damaged his cellphone’s PC board.
He wanted the supplier to replace the phone under the provisions of the Consumer Protection Act (CPA), which says the supplier is liable for damages, including economic loss, caused by defective goods.
“The supplier, who inspected the phone and the battery, told us that many consumers were experiencing the same problems with this specific phone even though they were using the original battery. The supplier said the phone was old and could not say if the battery caused the problems.
"We asked an independent inspector to give us a report about the cause of the malfunction. The inspector took the phone to the manufacturer who said the PC board was faulty. They could not say what caused it, but confirmed that it is usually due to wear and tear,” says Mphahlele.
She explains that under section 61 of the CPA, consumers do not have to prove negligence on the part of the supplier. However, they have to prove the goods were defective. But there was no conclusive proof and the office could not recommend that the supplier repair or replace the device.
Apart from her role as the ombud, Mphahlele wears other hats. She is the founder and chief executive of Ithuseng Credit Solutions, a 100% female-owned registered alternative dispute resolution agent that mediates disputes between credit providers and consumers.
Mphahlele is also an accredited court-annexed mediator and registered debt counsellor. She has more than 18 years’ experience in credit and consumer protection.
She also serves as a board member on various consumer bodies. Under her leadership as the consumer law reform project manager at the Department of Trade and Industry, the CPA and the National Credit Act were passed into law.
Mphahlele holds an honours degree in Applied Linguistics and a postgraduate diploma in English. Her passion is consumerism and she plays a key role influencing policy and legislation.
The mandate of the CGSO is to mediate between consumers and suppliers.
“We are also responsible for improving compliance with the CPA and standards of complaints handling by suppliers. The CGSO code of conduct has been gazetted by the DTI minister, so it is compulsory for qualifying suppliers to comply with the code.
"We currently have 878 members including most of the major retailers, wholesalers and manufacturers,” she said. Members includes retailers, wholesalers, manufacturers, distributors, importers, producers and marketers.
“As a mediator we look beyond the law to consider practicality and fairness. Often where the supplier is legally and technically correct we work out an amicable solution. However, once a matter goes to the National Consumer Tribunal (NCT) it becomes more legally technical.
"In one case where we failed, the tribunal fined a motor dealer R100000, as it contravened the CPA in many respects, the NCT report showed.”
Mphahlele said being CGS ombud is not very different from her other roles.
“I have been an adjudicator/mediator in different organisations and sectors including rental and credit. I have dealt with thousands of cases, but those that made us feel we were making a real difference were where we were able to save people’s homes from being repossessed or prevent unfair evictions.”
But in her role as the CE of Ithuseng Credit Solutions one case that was most distressing but had a happy outcome was about a mineworker who had so many garnishee deductions against his wages that his take-home pay was zero. “Fortunately we were able to mediate a positive outcome that allowed him to take home a decent amount while repaying his debts."
Consumers need to acquaint themselves with the CPA, as it will make them aware of their rights and responsibilities, Mphahlele says.
"Consumers need to voice their concerns when they feel their rights have been violated, and if their concerns are not resolved at store level they can lodge a complaint with us to get redress.
"The supplier does not have to be a member, and as long as the complaint falls within our jurisdiction we will deal with it. Our staff have various skills, although not all have legal qualifications, since mediation does not only rely on the knowledge of the law."
To contact the CGSO: www.cgso.org.za or sharecall: 0860 000 272 (CPA); email: [email protected] or fax: 086 206 1999