Institutions showing signs of death - Part 1: The National Consumer Commission

South Africa has an institution dedicated to fight on behalf of aggrieved consumers. It is alive. No, it is dead.

It is alive because it has an office, staff members and a budget. Every month, people get paid salaries for working for this institution. It is kept alive by the Act of Parliament that established it, making it a public body. But there is very little that it does to demonstrate that it cares about consumer concerns.

Relative to the extent of the abuse consumers suffer, this institution might as well be declared dead. Few will mourn and proclaim: "What a loss!"

When moving Ford Kugas burnt on our roads, threatening the lives of consumers, torturing them psychologically and subjecting them to financial ruin, you would have expected the representative of this institution to hog the headlines raising the plight of consumers. You would have expected them to demand compensation and complete withdrawal from the market of the coffin cars that are an embarrassment to the late Henry Ford and the Fordism he invented.

Had the institution which is called the National Consumer Commission done its work, dear reader, you would have known about it because Ford Kugas would have been removed from our roads after the first three cars burnt.

In December 2016, the National Consumer Commission issued a statement referring to meetings it held with other institutions – the Motor Industry Ombudsman and the National Regulator for Compulsory Specifications – to discuss the Ford Kuga crisis.

These bodies would, according to the National Consumer Commission, independently review all concluded investigations and related reports from Ford to determine the best possible way to proceed with the matter. In short, Ford would primarily investigate itself!

No wonder the scandal grew. As recently as February 2018 a Ford Kuga burnt in KwaZulu-Natal, according to a News24 report. This while the National Consumer Commission, the alleged champion of consumer rights, is alive. Well, alive legally, that is. Had the commission bothered to update its website, one could say it also lives on the website.

Sadly, the last time it updated its statement was on December 4, 2017. The statement announced a joint inspection on second-hand car dealers to be conducted with the South African Police Service. Ironically, the statement bemoans the ineffective approach of the commission: dealing with individual complaints and recommending alternative dispute resolutions. Subsequent to the inspection, the commission never announced whether any second-hand car dealer had been arrested for cheating consumers. Or whether the commission itself had opened a criminal case.

When people died as a result of bacteria suspected to have emanated from food products, the National Consumer Commission should have worked with families of the deceased or consumers who fell sick to find the source of the killer products, or at least assist in public awareness. Maybe that would have been too much to ask. But it is surely not too much to expect the National Consumer Commission to be up in arms, taking the side of the consumers in the public debate that involves Tiger Brands, whose Enterprise products have been identified by scientists as sources of listeriosis.

Health Minister Aaron Motsoaledi and the National Institute for Communicable Diseases have become everything: regulators, inspectors and consumer rights champions. Motsoaledi has an added responsibility of being a policy maker. He has become the face of the fight against the spread of listeriosis.

Motsoaledi is, of course, doing his job as health minister who is showing concern for the health of the nation. But there is also a producer, distributer and buyer relationship in the value chain. The producer of the listeriosis-infested product is a multibillion rand company. The distributors are also multibillion rand firms. The consumers, who made the producers a multibillion rand company, are individually weak relative to the financial strength of the producers.

This skewed power relations between producers/distributors and consumers must have been one of the considerations that led Parliament to pass the Consumer Protection Act which established the National Consumer Commission. Parliament must have thought about the power relations when it empowered the National Consumer Commission to, among others, promote the rights of consumers to safe and quality products. It might be time to review the legislation.

Consumers need a much stronger body than we currently have. It might help in part if the National Consumer Commission is removed from the Department of Trade and Industry and is given Chapter 9 status because its task to protect consumers is similar to that of the Public Protector, which is primarily to protect the public against abuse by the state or its functionaries.

Theoretically, there is a clash of interests: the DTI’s primary task is to appease investors and stimulate trade rather than protect consumers. This is why Motsoaledi, not Trade and Industry Minister Rob Davies, has been on a highly-publicised campaign on listeriosis. Media advertisements are sponsored by Motsoaledi’s department, not the National Consumer Commission.

The Ford Kuga and listeriosis crises offer us an opportunity to rethink South Africa’s institutional design to strengthen consumer protection. After all, we are all consumers of something.

- Mkhabela is a political analyst with the Department of Political Sciences at UNISA.

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