More consumer courts will be opened where South African consumers can take their complaints, when the Consumer Protection Act comes into effect on 1 April.
The Department of Trade and Industry (DTI) has kicked off a month-long campaign to educate South Africans about their rights under the new Consumer Protection Act.
The campaign will run throughout February 2011, with a special focus on rural areas where, the department said, people at times lack knowledge about their rights as consumers.
“We have noticed that many people who are vulnerable are consumers who live in rural areas, where service providers take them for granted and render poor services or sell them harmful products,” said DTI spokesperson Bongani Lukhele.
Through the campaign, the public will be educated on what their rights and options are when cancelling or renewing fixed-term agreements, such as property lease contracts.
They will be advised on what processes to follow when cancelling bus or plane ticket reservations that have been made in advance. In addition, consumers will be given tips on how to assess the quality of goods before and after purchase, or on delivery.
The campaign will also advise people on the correct procedures to follow when returning merchandise.
The DTI’s Sidwell Medupi said they hope by the end of the campaign consumers in rural areas will be more aware of their rights and responsibilities, and be able to make informed buying decisions. He said they will also ensure that customers have access to information and resources to bring unscrupulous businesses to book.
“I think this is a great campaign – we could all use some education on our rights as customers,” said Greg Carr from Bedfordveiw, east of Johannesburg. “I think businesses get away with way too much these days, and we need to know how to protect ourselves. People in rural areas are hardest hit because access to information and resources is sometimes limited.”
Selina Zuma, from Emphuluzi in Mpumalanga, lives far from town. Her nearest supermarket often sells food that is past its sell-by date, and this has had an impact on her family’s health. “With little resources and information, we don’t know how to hold these supermarket owners accountable, and stop them from selling us outdated stuff.”
Zuma said she thinks businesses operating in rural areas often take advantage of consumers. “Even though we do complain, they know we don’t have the means to take action so they show no urgency in changing the situation.”
She said she hopes that through the DTI’s drive, she will be made more aware of her rights as a consumer and get information about who she can complain to if they are violated. “We’d like the department to set up places where we can go with complaints, where the companies can answer for their wrongdoing.”
Lukhele said once the new Consumer Protection Act comes into effect on 1 April, consumer courts would be set up to deal with such cases.
“Currently we have consumer courts in some of the provinces, but after the Act comes into effect, more will be made available,” he said.
The Act will be implemented by the National Consumer Commission, which will investigate and, if need be, prosecute companies that are found to contravene the terms of the legislation.
The commission is aiming to heighten consumer protection across business sectors within all municipalities, and improve consumer awareness and access to information.
“During the campaign we will be putting emphasis on the right to choose, and the right to fair value and good quality,” said Lukhele.
He said the implications of the Act will go beyond shops and service providers, and that “suppliers will also be held responsible for unsatisfactory products”.
If retailers or suppliers are found to be non-compliant, they could ultimately be banned from operating in the country, Lukhele added.