Protecting consumers

2009-05-08 00:00

SOUTH Africans have become accustomed to exercising their political rights as citizens. As customers their position has lagged way behind that of other countries, but with the adoption of the Consumer Protection Bill, marketplace exploitation will eventually become more difficult. The onus is on companies to be far more ethical in the conduct of their business.

The new law covers goods and services. These include not just the products on a supermarket shelf or intangibles such as insurance, but water and electricity, education, transport, entertainment and electronic services. A large swathe of service providers will need to become far more attentive to the needs of those from whom they derive income.

Much of this new legislation has a commendably old-fashioned ring to it. Information about a product or service must be made available in ordinary, intelligible language understandable to the average purchaser. Many would argue that this should also be a principle extended to all legal documents. Consumers’ rights regarding contracts are to be tightened up and this is expected to rein in the cellphone companies. Certain types of potentially one-sided marketing are to be more carefully regulated.

Perhaps most important of all, strict liability provisions bring South Africa into line with the major democracies. Sellers of second-hand cars, for instance, will now be liable for latent defects. Retailers will have to become a great deal more interested in the goods they sell so readily.

This week the ombudsman for long-term insurance announced a significant increase in the number of complaints lodged with his office, many of them connected with funeral policies. For far too long, South Africans have been vulnerable to shady business practice. Those on the receiving end have often been the historically disadvantaged and the new law is justifiably aimed at redress.

Legal protection against retail exploitation is an important part of a democratic society: citizens have rights and vendors have responsibilities. But the retailers are already claiming that the added legal risk they are about to bear will carry a cost. Unfortunately, no law will prevent this being passed on to the long-suffering

consumer.

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