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Sunday Times STLive By Megan Power, 2012-02-26

Fledgling body fires early salvos

Megan Power
Image: Sunday Times

Corporate giants must appear before tribunal to answer complaints

Positive things are happening on the consumer rights front - and there's more to come.

This week, the City of Johannesburg - which has caused more frustration among ratepayers than any other municipality in SA - appeared before the National Consumer Tribunal to answer allegations of failing its customers on several fronts, most notably around the billing crisis.

But it is not the only one under pressure from the Consumer Commission.

MTN appeared before the tribunal last month and judgment is pending. And while the Vodacom and Telkom hearings have been postponed, Cell C will defend its conduct in March. Multichoice will take the stand on Tuesday, with TopTV following on Thursday.

The defeatist view that the commission is outnumbered and outwitted is an argument I'm simply not ready to accept. It's a fledgling entity - grossly under-resourced and underfunded - navigating new and complex legislation. In any country, that's a challenge, more so in a society where other key human rights priorities compete for support and attention.

The commission is far from perfect and urgently needs to be bolstered, but it certainly gives consumers more firepower than they had a year ago. Who would have imagined SA's corporate giants being forced to justify their actions and contracts? And publicly to boot.

There's no question the act itself has teeth. Mere mention of it is sometimes enough to force suppliers to toe the line. It has given ordinary consumers ammunition in their day-to-day battles with unscrupulous business, bringing the legislation to life in exactly the way it was intended.

KwaZulu-Natal reader Judy Bell was told no refund was possible on her cancelled air ticket to Knysna when her 83-year-old mother's scheduled surgery was cancelled. The anaesthetist had been killed in an accident, and surgery was postponed at the last minute.

SAA told Bell that because she'd bought a cheaper ticket - SA Airlink, Durban to George return, for R3739 - it was not refundable, but she could get a portion of her taxes back.

"I explained that this was an emergency and I had no choice ... but to no avail. My mother asked the hospital to claim on its insurance for the costs to change the flights, but it declined. I had to re-book the flight, the only one available on that route, and pay R3956.

"Is this right? Is there no recourse to reclaim some of the costs for a problem that was not of our doing or within our control?" said Bell.

I asked SAA to consider a more "consumer-centric" approach. The airline pondered it for two weeks before giving Bell a full refund.

Mamelodi security guard Jan Chigo's situation was more desperate. He'd agreed with an 8ta call-centre agent to take out a R130-a-month contract, but ended up having R930 deducted from his bank account, which he couldn't afford.

To make matters worse, his sim card was stolen, but he still had to pay a monthly fee to 8ta for the phone.

"Please be careful before you join this thing called 8ta ... there is a lady ... who is out to betray/mislead people ... please rather go to other network ... I now think I can kill myself because of this ... (sic)," wrote Chigo, who'd tried unsuccessfully to get out of the contract.

I asked 8ta to pull the recordings of the sales pitch to Chigo to determine whether there'd indeed been misrepresentation. 8ta took a month to respond, but it was worth the wait.

"Following a detailed investigation, 8ta regrets the manner in which this contract sale was acquired and apologises for the inconvenience experienced by our customer," said Amith Maharaj, managing executive for Telkom Mobile, which owns 8ta.

The contract has been discontinued and the agent involved given further training.

Robertson reader Pamela Spencer spent the past four months trying to stop Planet Fitness gym harassing her for payment on a contract she doesn't have. The 65-year-old has never set foot in a gym, much less one in Centurion, where she supposedly was a member.

"In November, I received a voice message that Planet Fitness would be taking money from my bank account for fees owed," said Spencer.

When a customer-care agent called a week later, Spencer told him she wasn't a member. He checked her ID number against the gym's database, confirmed she wasn't listed and suggested she monitor her bank account for deductions.

When she received an SMS a few days later saying she was in arrears, she complained yet again and was referred to the Centurion branch manager, who never returned her call. She was so afraid of money being deducted from her account that she put a block on it.

Planet Fitness senior brand manager Eileen de Boer apologised and fixed the problem.

"It seems like the cell number of another active contract was captured incorrectly. The complainant then got SMS notifications by mistake," said De Boer.

These are, without doubt, small victories in the greater scheme of things, but they're triumphs nonetheless.

That alone is worth celebrating.

For more detail on hearings, call the Consumer Tribunal on 0126838140.

Sunday Smile

At Alpine Volkswagen in Pinetown, which sourced a new car for reader Jay Jugwanth in three weeks at "a competitive price and included many extras at no cost". It even offered to deliver it to his Pietermaritzburg home. "I am amazed at the extremes staff went to to see us happy."

Sunday Snarl

At Matrix's approved fitment centre Mobile Auto Installations in Randburg, which charged reader Joy Kriel R1740 - including a R200 penalty for paying by electronic funds transfer - to remove her tracking unit and fit it to her new car. Netstar did the same job for her husband and charged R750.