Adv Kate Thambiran @ Lucid Living
In a previous article we looked at the implications of the Consumer Protection Act (CPA) on Cell Phone contracts (see: Cell Phone Contracts and the CPA). Recent statistics released by the National Consumer Commission (NCC), attest to the fact that consumers have been quick to exercise their newly bestowed rights, by lodging a barrage of complaints against cell phone companies.
Almost 90% of the country’s population is covered by mobile telephony networks. With an estimated 39 million subscribers, South Africa is one of the fastest-growing mobile markets in the world. The success of the cell phone industry is South Africa is undeniable.
South African consumers have a strong demand and affection for cell phones, but only disdain for their service providers. This contempt for the industry is not unfounded, considering, in comparison to the US and European markets, costs remain high and grumbles about cellular and landline services have become a national pastime.
Not surprisingly the bulk of the more than 2000 complaints the NCC has received in the first three weeks is against telephone companies. These range from unfair contract agreements, pricing and billing objections to poor customer care.
This makes the ICT sector an ideal target for the new NCC created out of the CPA.
Mamodupi Mohlala, head of the NCC insists that every complaint will be investigated, and is determined to press ahead with a probe of the ICT sector, even though it could spark a court battle with Icasa.
But Icasa is now applying to have the sector exempt , arguing that it already has a complaints unit to protect consumers from unfair business practices by companies under its jurisdiction. Consumers would argue that the complaints unit and Icasa as a whole, have failed the consumer.
The act allows regulatory institutions to apply for an industry wide exemption from one or more provisions on the grounds that there is an overlap. But Mohlala, a former Icasa councillor for several years, is clear that “we have the final say” on consumer protection issues.
But how this battle with Icasa plays out has deeper significance, as it will show just how much muscle Mohlala has and set the template for how the commission works with other oversight authorities. It will be an important test case for the NCC and is likely to be the first of many as the commission elbows its way into the SA business landscape.