IT is over two years now since consumer protection legislation was introduced in South Africa. South Africans had lived in something close to the consumer 'Dark Ages' for many years that was plagued by the historical legacy of disempowerment for consumers.
Consumers in South Africa and Namibia alike have suffered the enormous weight of 'small print' and tedious 'terms and conditions' when buying just about anything under the sun. These have been made further difficult by purposefully having unclear hire purchase contractual arrangements to paying the price for a service provider's inability to cancel a contract, whether subscribing for a gym facility or paying for an unwanted service on a periodic basis, which is normally a year.
Ever since political liberation and independence for South Africa and Namibia, concentrated economic sectors and lack of strong consumer and political will against the need for effective consumer protection have greatly disenfranchised and disempowered consumers. This greatly changed on 1st April 2011, when the new Consumer Protection Act (CPA) came into effect with strong support from consumers and politicians alike in South Africa.
Namibian support for the need for consumer protection has also culminated in preparations in that regard. Prominent newspapers like New Era advocated for a strong and effective consumer lobby recently. There has also been increased awareness created led by the vibrant grassroots consumer organisations such as the Namibia Consumer Trust, Namibia Consumer Protection Group, and the Namibia Consumer Lobby.
All these bodies are increasingly using social media such as 'Facebook' to increase awareness on consumer issues and the need to ensure legislation for the consumer.
The Law Reform and Development Commission has also been aggressive lately to ensure that Namibia follows on the heels of South Africa to develop consumer protection policy and law in Namibia. Further, the Ministry of Justice held a groundbreaking workshop in 2009 to raise awareness on consumer protection from a legal perspective.
There are also considerable efforts underway in terms of financial literacy to bring consumer rights to the public domain in the country. The efforts of the Ministry of Finance, the Bank of Namibia and NAMFISA, as well as other cooperating partners such as SME Compete, NCCI and GIZ should be complemented to increase consumer financial education.
The Namibian Competition Commission (NCC) has started to interrogate the link between consumer protection and competition policy and law. In fact, the Commission has finalised a comprehensive study that proposes concrete recommendations in respect of the strong relevance between consumer and competition protection in Namibia. Evidence indicates that having only one without the other compromises the attainment of the purpose for which the Competition Commission was established.
The Namibian Competition Commission (NCC) hosted the Competition and Consumer Week from 24-28 September 2012 as part of its advocacy drive on competition law and policy, as well as consumer protection.
The workshop concluded that there is an established need for consumer protection in the country, as well as for coordination of existing efforts towards the development of consumer protection law and policy.
The need for cementing a coherent approach to consumer protection in terms of the coverage of consumer protection legislation in the Competition Act and jurisdictional matters were highlighted and affirmed during the same workshop. The workshop further concluded that there is a need to strengthen institutions such as the NaCC to carry out its mandate in order to help enforce consumer protection provisions.
The proposed approach on consumer protection and the strong relevance of it to competition policy and law was overwhelmingly supported by Chilufya Sampa, Executive Director of the Zambian Competition and Consumer Protection Commission.
Sampa delivered a presentation on the Zambian experience in consumer affairs.
In his presentation, he gave a historical background on the Zambian economy with reference to the enactment of the Competition and Fair Trading Act of 1994. After 13 years of enforcing the Competition and Fair Trading Act of 1994, the consumer protection aspects were incorporated into the existing law to form the Competition and Consumer Protection Act of 2010, which led to the renaming of the Zambian Competition Commission to Zambian Competition and Consumer Protection Commission and became the primary consumer protection advocate and enforcement agency.
The presentation outlined the administration of the Zambian Competition and Consumer Protection Act of 2010 under the Zambian Competition and Consumer Protection Commission. The presenter further noted that, given the developments around the region, Namibia as a country is moving at a rather slow pace in developing crucial legislation and the need for a central body where consumers can lodge their complaints.
He supported the strong relevance between competition enforcement and consumer protection, as well as recommendations to extend the Competition Act to cover consumer protection aspects and that it be designed to suit the Namibian situation.
The Ministry of Trade and Industry should be commended for its visionary direction of centralising consumer protection on the developmental agenda by creating the necessary institutional capacity in the ministry, as well as pushing the Namibian Competition Commission in defining its competition space from a consumer point of view.
One thing is increasingly clear from the Commission's point of view. Consumer rights are here to stay in Namibia. The Commission knows that its success will depend on the purpose of the Competition Act, 2003 around which economic and consumer welfare issues in terms of the three P's - pricing (competitive), product (choice) and promotions (honest ethical advertising) will revolve.
Going forward there can be no effective competition policy and law in Namibia unless there is a greater responsiveness to place greater weight on consumer rights and welfare. Consumers should not only benefit from lower prices, better quality and a greater variety of goods and services, but such situation can lead to efficient business transactions, that provide transparent information to consumers.
Mihe Gaomab II is the Secretary and Chief Executive Officer of the Namibian Competition Commission.