Effective consumer protection was brought a step closer on Friday with the adoption in the national assembly of the Consumer Protection Bill.
Introducing debate on the measure, Trade and Industry Minister Mandisi Mpahlwa said it was aimed at promoting and advancing the social and economic welfare of consumers.
Among other things, the bill would provide for the establishment of a statutory National Consumer Commission, with a mandate to proactively identify, investigate, and prosecute contraventions of consumer laws before the National Consumer Tribunal.
"It [the bill] seeks to regulate the commercial relationship between a supplier and a consumer to ensure fair and competitive markets," Mpahlwa said.
Some of the abuses it sought to address included unfair contract terms, misleading and fraudulent advertising, not honouring guarantees, abuse of personal information, non-disclosure of terms and conditions, and poor product quality.
"The bill addresses these challenges by adopting a rights-based approach, aimed at asserting consumer rights when contracting with suppliers.
"These rights are designed in a manner that prohibits certain conduct upfront, encodes common law principles, provides for the establishment of effective redress mechanisms for consumers, recognises and supports the role of consumer NGOs, and promotes customer responsibility in the public and private sectors," he said.
The bill backed up these rights by giving consumers the right to receive documents written in plain and understandable language. This would prohibit unfair contract terms, enhance choice by requiring disclosure and information on prices, contract terms, quality, safety, guarantees and warrantees.
Advertising, marketing and promotions would have to adhere to certain standards, including that they should not be misleading, fraudulent or misrepresent the benefits of any product, service, or skill, Mpahlwa said.
The bill provides, among others, that the minister may prescribe days, dates and times during which consumers may not be contacted for promotions.
To enhance consumer choice, suppliers are prohibited from requiring consumers to buy bundled goods or services, unless it can be proven that it results in economic benefit for consumers.
The right to choose includes the right to decide whether or not to continue with a commercial arrangement during the course of an agreement, and once it has expired.
The bill establishes the consumer's right to cancel a fixed-term agreement, limits the rights of suppliers to impose cancellation charges, and sets out rules governing the expiry of such agreements.
The bill will go to the National Council of Provinces for concurrence. - Sapa