/ 10 February 2012

Fiery champ of your right to a fair deal

Fiery Champ Of Your Right To A Fair Deal

Mamodupi Mohlala bustles into a boardroom in the Consumer Commission’s new offices in Centurion, Pretoria. She apologises for being late for our interview, but sits and gets right down to business.

It has been a busy year for the new consumer commissioner: not only has she had to deal with an influx of 12 000 complaints and inquiries to the newly established commission, she also had to set up the infrastructure of the body from scratch.

The commission has a staff complement of just more than 80 and it has been making headlines for taking on some big guns in corporate South Africa.

Cellphone players, broadcasters, internet service providers, medical schemes, car dealers and banks have all had tangles with the commission in the past year.

There has been criticism of the commission and some have even suggested that Mohlala is settling old scores, making reference to her role as a councillor for the Independent Communications Authority of South Africa and director general of the department of communications, where she was responsible for interacting with and regulating many of the companies that are now in her firing line.

But Mohlala is ready to illustrate how the Consumer Protection Act is meant to protect consumers and how members of corporate South Africa are falling foul of it.

The fiery reputation that has marked her career and caused numerous headlines over the years seems perfectly suited to her new role as consumer champion.

A lawyer by profession, Mohlala is well placed to inhabit her new role.

“We want to create a culture of the activist consumer, who can … actively defend their rights and [understand] the provisions in the Consumer Protection Act that are there to protect them,” she says, laying out her vision for the new institution.

“I am sure you have heard repeatedly that the Consumer Protection Act makes South Africans the most protected consumers in the world.”

Mohlala says the commission has received 8 000 complaints from consumers in the past financial year and a further 4 000 inquiries have come in from businesses seeking guidance.

“We have been able to deal with more than 4 000 complaints in our first year, which we think is quite an accolade because our full staff complement is only 80 people [and] only 36 deal with complaints,” she says. “We need to meet consumer demands and meet them as soon as yesterday, because we are their last port of call.”

Mohlala told Parliament at the end of January that the commission was underfunded and running out of money. Its budget is R33-million and will be upped to R45-million next year, but it has been reported that it believes it needs a budget closer to R134-million.

Mohlala told Parliament that the commission’s call centre, which received about 30 000 calls a month, had only five agents. This resulted in 20 000 calls being dropped, which damaged the commission’s reputation.

But Mohlala does not want to talk about funding issues; instead, she prefers the upcoming consumer tribunal hearings at which MultiChoice and TopTV will appear. There are numerous issues at play in these hearings, but the one that has made headlines is the issue of unbundling television channel bouquets.

This is a consumer’s dream — picking and choosing exactly which television channels you want to watch when.

Mohlala is quick to point out that the Consumer Protection Act does not ban the bundling of channels, but it does state that the service provider has to make its pricing transparent so that consumers know exactly what the added value in the bouquet is.

“This goes to the heart of pay TV in the South African context, because you are provided with a bouquet and told this is what you get. There is no option to buy channels individually, such as I just want sports or news,” she says. “It comes down to freedom of choice and if a consumer says they just want one channel, then they should be able to buy just one.”

Mohlala keeps referring to section 13 of the Act — the provision, she argues, of which the broadcasters have fallen foul.

“Strictly from a consumer point of view, we can see merit in this provision. We accept that there may be business challenges regarding this, but then they must come and provide the facts and figures. It’s not good enough to just say that this is international best practice. As a consumer I must know what I am choosing and the financial implications of what I am choosing.”

Mohlala points out that the 20-day termination clause, as stipulated in section 14 of the Act, is not in the contracts that consumers sign with MultiChoice and TopTV.

“Consumers are given the right to terminate a contract, but they are not given the right to terminate at any time on a 20-day notice and the Act is very clear on this,” she says.

“There were also many provisions in the contracts which purported to indemnify the broadcaster from liability, which is clearly contrary to the Act.”

The hearings into these alleged violations of the Act are the result of one of the commission’s targeted investigations.

“We have conducted a few targeted investigations,” says Mohlala, “such as our work in the information, communication and technology sector, where we looked at the [telecommunications companies], the mobile players, the broadcasters and the internet service providers.”

The commission’s work has gone as far as investigating the terms and conditions for SABC licences. As a result, a consumer now buying a new television set is presented with the terms and conditions of their SABC licence upfront so that they are clear about what their obligations are.

“We also have investigations into the medical aid and pharmaceutical sector and we have made findings in terms of the medical aid schemes, especially closed schemes,” she says.

“I know that we have been accused of meddling in industries where there are sector regulators, and there is an issue with resolving these issues. In the ICT sector, I think we achieved some strides that the industry regulator may not have been able to achieve,” she says matter of factly. “For instance, we issued letters to internet service providers around the issue of consumers carrying over data bundles for a period of three years. Neotel and iBurst proactively came to the commission and said ‘we will resolve this’.

“From an investigations point of view, I thought it was important to have targeted investigations. These were guided by the initial batch of complaints that came in and most of them were in the ICT sector.

“The other thing we have been successful in [is that] we have raised consciousness. Like us or hate us, you have to acknowledge that we are here and I think a lot of businesses are starting to take us a lot more seriously.

“Two days ago I was doing an interview on radio and someone called in who had bought goods and they were defective and they had gone to return them. Initially the retailer resisted, but when they heard that the matter would be referred to the commission they agreed to deal with the matter.”

Some high-profile members of corporate South Africa may be preparing to do legal battle with South Africa’s new consumer champion and face penalties of as much as 10% of annual turnover if they are found wanting, but it is clear that Mohlala is ready for the fight — and the one after that.

Asked whether establishing the commission has been harder than expected, she says: “I have realised that education around the work of the Consumer Commission is not just for consumers, but also for businesses to understand how we work and what we do.”

And with that she is gone, jetting off to another meeting with some businessmen in fine-looking suits. Or with more victims, perhaps, or members of corporate South Africa trying to get their ducks in a row.