Competition Commission tries to contain soaring school uniform prices

Munzhedzi Matshusa buys a school uniform for her 8-year-old son Rotondwa Malibana at Mary's Outfitters in the Pretoria CBD yesterday. Picture: Oupa Mokoena/African News Agency (ANA)

Munzhedzi Matshusa buys a school uniform for her 8-year-old son Rotondwa Malibana at Mary's Outfitters in the Pretoria CBD yesterday. Picture: Oupa Mokoena/African News Agency (ANA)

Published Jan 8, 2023


Durban - Schools have been urged by the Competition Commission (CC) to comply with its guidelines on school uniforms and to deal with the most competitive suppliers.

The CC said this would also benefit poor parents. Commission’s spokesperson Siyabulela Makunga said investigations revealed several schools had entered into longterm “evergreen” exclusive agreements with specific suppliers.

He described this as monopolistic and said it had resulted in suppliers charging parents inflated prices.

Makunga said exclusive agreements not only hindered the entry and participation of other suppliers, but also prevented existing suppliers from competing fairly in the market.

As a consequence of such longterm arrangements, parents and guardians were compelled to buy uniforms from suppliers that dictated prices, Makunga said.

He said competition between manufacturers or suppliers of uniforms benefited consumers through lower prices because firms understood that to gain a higher market share they needed to offer better prices.

Competition among suppliers was good for the economy, allowed new businesses to enter the market and enabled existing smaller firms to expand, which the CC supported, Makunga said.

In December 2020, the CC and the Department of Basic Education produced school uniform guidelines to ensure uniforms were as generic as possible.

Among its stipulations was a reduction in the number of unique uniform items that needed to be acquired from pre-selected suppliers; parents being able to exercise their choice as consumers; schools being required to manage a competitive bidding process before committing to service providers; and, where possible, more than one supplier had to be engaged.

Another was that schools concluded agreements of limited duration as opposed to signing up for evergreen contracts with suppliers. Makunga said they continued to ensure that schools nationwide complied with the guidelines, which championed pro-competitive procurement practices.

To ensure guidelines compliance last year, they conducted school site visits in January and November, promoted the signing of an “undertaking to comply” with the guidelines agreement, and investigated 190 complaints.

Of these, 100 cases were resolved when schools adjusted their conduct, while the other 90 were closed due to a lack of relevance. Makunga said the CC undertook a national survey between August and October to test compliance and targeted public and private schools.

With support from the DBE, 401 schools responded. He said the survey results revealed high levels of guideline awareness, which was a marked improvement from the previous survey in 2016.

The survey results also revealed high compliance levels with the call for generic uniforms as opposed to unique ones, and issues pertaining to exclusivity and length of contracts with suppliers. Dr Azar Jammime, director and chief economist at Econometrix, said the 2023 academic year looked quite challenging for parents, considering the current economic climate.

Sindi Dlamini, 36, a factory worker from Mariannhill, said she was not financially ready for schools’ reopening.

“My son is about to start Grade 8. Buying new uniforms is a struggle because even the government grant he gets is not enough.

I get paid on the 25th, when schools will be open already,” she said. Noxolo Muthwa, 32, from Mayville, who works in retail, said her 8-year-old child has to use the old uniform from previous years because the government grant was used for other school essentials