Sandton City Mall reported a high foot count from as early as 6am for the Black Friday event in which stores offered up to 50 percent discounts. Popular items were nappies and toilet rolls. Picture: Timothy Bernard
Fords on fire. Timeshare. Data costs. Unauthorised deductions from Sassa beneficiaries’ accounts. Food fraud. The list of violations of consumer rights is endless. Which is why bad service, poor quality goods, false advertising/misrepresentation and other abuses remain commonplace. Consumers’ rights are protected, though, and we have recourse, but enforcement and education remain problematic.

This Wednesday, March 15, is World Consumer Rights Day, which has been celebrated globally since 1983.

It’s an opportunity to promote consumers’ basic rights, to ensure those rights are respected and protected, and a chance to protest against market abuses and social injustices.

The day was inspired by US President John F Kennedy, who outlined consumer rights in an address in Congress on March 15, 1962. He stated: “Consumers, by definition, include us all. They are the largest economic group, affecting and affected by almost every public and private economic decision. Yet they are the only important group ... whose views are often not heard.”

Kennedy was the first world leader to highlight the significance of consumer rights.

ConsumersInternational (CI) is a world confederation of consumer groups.

Established in 1960, it has over 250 member organisations in 120 countries, including South Africa. One of their functions is to co-ordinate World Consumer Rights Day.

Their theme for this year is “Building a digital world consumers can trust”.

With the recent Wikileaks CIA dump (which highlighted yet again that nothing is ever truly private), online scams and banking fraud, we should all be deeply concerned.

Digital technology has made a huge impact on our lives, but with improved access to information, convenience and communication, comes great danger.

On its website, CI states: “Whilst consumers undoubtedly benefit from these technologies, there are questions about how to establish access to the internet for the many consumers who are not connected; how to improve the quality of services; which online services and products consumers can trust; and what happens to the data they share online.

“To address some of these issues and promote access, participation and innovation in digital technology, Consumers International are working to create a #BetterDigitalWorld. Throughout the next year and beyond we will be working on a range of projects that will help build an online world that consumers can trust.”

On March 15, CI will be partnering the German Federal Ministry of Justice and Consumer Protection (BMJV) and the Federation of German Consumer Organisations to co-host a G20 consumer summit in Berlin, as part of the official G20 agenda for the German presidency.

Know your rights

Back in South Africa, despite all the political noise, we shouldn’t lose sight of the fact we have one of the most forward-thinking constitutions in the world. Same for consumer rights: we have comprehensive, rights-based legislation in place to protect consumers - the two most powerful being the Consumer Protection Act and the National Credit Act.

Broadly speaking, the CPA recognises eight fundamental consumer rights, in line with the constitution and the UN’s Guidelines on Consumer Protection. You have a right to:

Be heard: on issues, policies, plans, programmes and decisions which affect you.

Safety: be protected against flaws or hidden dangers in products or services.

Redress: When sold an inferior product or service, you have the right to demand a replacement or a refund.

Be informed: given all the information you need about a product or service.

Choice: the right to a variety of products and goods that are competitively priced.

Consumer education: education that will empower you to make informed choices.

Satisfaction of basic needs: the right to basic goods and services for survival, such as food, water, education and sanitation.

A healthy environment: a physical environment that will enhance your quality of life.

Consumer responsibilities

With rights come responsibilities. A critical issue is the lack of awareness about consumer issues which prevents people from exercising their rights and acting in their own interests.

It’s a point well made by the CI’s former president, Anwar Fazal, who argued in the 1980s that consumers have an obligation to be critically aware and ask more questions about goods and services; be assertive, to ensure that they get a fair deal; be socially and ecologically responsible (consider the disadvantaged, litter and food waste); be involved and act in solidarity with others.

Professor Bonke Dumisa, the acting executive chairperson of the National Consumer Tribunal, feels strongly about consumer activism.

He told me: “I would’ve expected to see more consumers flocking to the NCC and provincial offices. I want to encourage consumers to ensure they’re well-informed about the processes. Government wanted to fast-track processes for consumers. Go to websites of various agencies. Call them - inform yourself.”

It’s not only about being informed - the various bodies need to get the message out.

Lebogang Selibi, spokesperson for the National Credit Regulator, said they were running a consumer rights campaign nationally in partnership with the Department of Trade & Industry and National Consumer Commission.

“The NCR, together with its partners, will be running an advertising campaign on general consumer rights in terms of the National Credit Act (NCA) and Consumer Protection Act (CPA). In addition, outside broadcasts are planned with community radio stations in different provinces to complement the advertising campaign with the aim of engaging consumers face-to-face.

“Our theme is ‘Consumers’ rights in the digital age’. Our focus is to educate consumers on their rights and responsibilities; about misleading advertising [especially SMS and online credit and debt counselling scams]; create awareness on unlawful provisions of credit agreements, affordability assessment regulations and credit life insurance; inform consumers on dangers of using unregistered credit providers; and be smart about borrowing.”