Newsmaker: Nation’s agony aunt takes on Jozi

2012-02-18 18:24

Even prisoners have taken to complaining to Mamodupi Mohlala since her National Consumer Commission was formed almost a year ago.

About 8000 embattled consumers from across the country are taking to their telephones, emails and fax machines every month to complain. And Mohlala says she’s only too happy to oblige.

She packs volts of energy, which see her working long hours every day to fulfil her mission of defending the underdog. She is lively too, bubbly and warm but very businesslike, with a ready laugh.

Underneath, however, one detects a steely resolve like that of another champion of the underdog, Public Protector Advocate Thuli Madonsela.

But while Madonsela speaks in measured tones, Mohlala is lively, fiddling with a pen in her fingers and expressing herself in staccato sentences.

When she accidentally drops the pen, she turns her attention to the gleaming diamond ring on her finger – testimony to her engagement to businessman Lazarus Mulaudzi, to whom she became engaged during a lavish ceremony in Rosebank, Johannesburg.

She oozes passion, and one gets the impression that the position of National Consumer Commissioner is more than just a job for her, it’s a calling.

When we meet at her office on Thursday morning, the former director-general of the Department of Communications has been juggling meetings and scanning documents and files containing a myriad of complaints with which her office deals daily.

On Wednesday she was making presentations to Parliament, pleading for an increase to her R33-million budget and presenting their successes.

Since they were established last April, her office has received close on 15 000 complaints, many against government departments, municipalities, big corporates and small companies.

Most complaints are levelled against mobile phone operators, retailers, car dealerships, municipalities and the timeshare business, she says.

Interestingly, 3% of complaints are from prison inmates who have gripes about their poor quality food and lack of telephone access.

“They are unhappy about the soya mince that they are supposed to get and do not get,” Mohlala said. Far from dismissing these cases, she insists that, according to the Consumer Protection Act, prisoners have to be afforded the same treatment as everyone else.

“We investigate all cases,” says Mohlala. “We need to make sure that consumers are not just covered in law but are also covered in practice.”

Mohlala personally oversees 240 complaints a week.

So far, her office has finalised about a third of their 15 000 complaints, all of which she signed off. Her five call centre agents field at least 8 000 calls a month.

She hesitates a little and flashes a naughty smile when asked if she takes work home.

“Should I answer that? I do but my fiancee doesn’t encourage it,” she says with a smile.

Mohlala says although her life is 80% work and 20% play, when she does get time off she likes nothing more than hitting the road, visiting places of historical significance.

“I love anthropology and travel, so I try to fuse the two,” she says. She’s also an avid reader, but for now it’s work, work, work...

Last month Mohlala released a report which found that the terms and conditions motorists sign when registering for e-tags for use on Gauteng’s soon-to-be tolled highways don’t comply with the Consumer Protection Act.

“I never said e-tolling was illegal. What I said was that the terms and conditions are what Sanral have to fix. We have requested a meeting with Sanral,” she says.

Next week, Mohlala’s office will take on the City of Johannesburg when the National Consumer Tribunal holds public hearings into the city’s billing crisis.

Last year Mohlala’s office received over 200 complaints from irate residents and recommended fines of up to R1 million if the city failed to fix the billing mess.

Why does she love what she does?

“Once you come face to face with the difficulties that South Africans face in commerce and business, you really can’t go home and be at peace knowing that there’s that even one person out there who is still being victimised.”

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