South Africans have lived in something close to the consumer dark ages for many years. From suffering under the weight of dubious and purposefully unclear hire purchase arrangements to paying the price for a service provider's inability to cancel a contract (as requested!), we have a history of struggling to take action when we really should.
One of the reasons for this is the fact that the law hasn't exactly been on our side. For years, entrenched monopolies and a lack of strong consumer protection laws have tipped the scales against consumers. But all that changes on 24 October, when the new Consumer Protection Act (CPA) comes into effect.
The Act will have many implications for businesses, who will be called to account, legally speaking, in instances that traditionally generated only a resigned shrug of apology. And consumers will be significantly more empowered. From now on, we can stand up for ourselves, knowing that the law is on our side. The bottom line is this act has real teeth. Companies that fail to comply with its terms can face penalties as severe as an administrative fine of up to 10% of annual turnover - or a fine of R1 million.
Of course, to be an active consumer you need to understand your rights, and the responsibilities of service providers, as defined by the act. Here are some of the highlights:
Privacy - at last
Most South Africans are tired of unsolicited sales calls, junk emails and SMS's. The CPA takes very necessary privacy action, allowing you to demand that any company that contacts you without you asking them to do so removes you from its database. Even better, when you're filling out a contract or membership form, online of offline, you must be given the choice to specify that you do not want to be bothered by advertising.
Ever regret that time share purchase you agreed to just to get rid of the sales guy? The CPA says companies must now offer you a cooling off period to cancel an advance reservation, booking or order. This measure gives consumers the ability to recover from the heat of sales moment and confirm their decision after consideration. The act also makes it illegal for companies to automatically renew contracts as they expire. From now on, they'll need permission in writing from you before they can renew. And, even better, suppliers and service providers you hold contracts with are now obliged to communicate with you when they increase prices.
No more doublespeak
One of the most important changes the CPA brings is a legal obligation on companies communicating with consumers to do so in plain, simple language. Companies now have to communicate with us in plain language that any reasonable person can understand in their adverts, media statements and terms and conditions. This isn't only a measure to reduce overwhelming consumer annoyance - it also seriously empowers consumers and means companies can no longer dupe you with fine print you haven't read.
Your right to fair and responsible marketing
The CPA will make it far easier for you to take action when a company provides bad or defective goods or services. According to the act we now have a legal right to fair and responsible marketing, and service. The reason South African companies have shrugged off so many complaints for so long is because they have been able to get away with it. From October 24, this will no longer be the case. An interesting addition here is that Customer Loyalty Programmes will also need to give consumers 20 working days' notice of any changes to the structure of any loyalty scheme or programme.
Fair and honest dealing
Remember that time you got shunted to a different flight because the airline had 'overbooked'? Remember how annoying that ridiculous food court voucher was? Well, times have changed. Now, if you miss a flight because the airline sold more tickets than it had seats, the airline must refund your ticket, with interest, and not just hand out vouchers for the missed booking.
This will create a totally different context for service providers, who will surely want to avoid the massive logistical headache involved in the refund process. The Act also looks to protect consumers against generally fraudulent schemes and offers (pyramid and related schemes are big targets here). To put it simply, companies indulging in overselling (a polite term for commercial lying) will be punished.
Reasonable terms and conditions are now a must
Signing your life away by mistake is no longer going to be so easy, thanks to the CPA. Even if you have agreed to a contract with your signature, companies creating one-sided contracts that clearly favour themselves will be taking a real chance. The court now has the power to redraft clauses or to order the company to change unfair terms and conditions.
Your right to fair value, good quality and safety
The CPA also includes clauses designed to ensure that consumers receive goods that are of "good quality, free of defects and reasonably suitable for the purpose for which [they were] required". In a nutshell that means when the product is delivered, it must do what they say it will in the advert. If it clearly doesn't, or if it arrives in a terrible condition, you, the consumer, are totally within your rights to take action.
The CPA will make it far easier for us to enforce our rights as consumers, and, importantly, to go through the process of claiming damages or compensation when we have ended up on the wrong end of a commercial transaction. From October 24, you will be able to take complaints about companies' behaviour - under the terms of the Act - to a Tribunal, contact details for which will be revealed closer to the launch of the act. Otherwise, speak to your legal advisor and let he or she guide you in exercising your rights.