Saturday 7 April 2007

Combating naiveté

Many, many years ago I worked briefly as an Assistant Psychologist in a large hospital. It was my first ever real job and as well as getting used to things like getting to work on time, filling in endless forms and learning how difficult it was for an office to get paperclips I had to learn to deal with the completely insane. No, I’m not going to make any predictable jokes about psychiatrists, these were the patients. The customers. Sometimes on my bad days I often think that this was a very useful learning experience for someone that ended up spending a lot of time thinking about how organisations function.

So many organisations have processes, rules and practices that are clearly deranged. For instance the cellphone operator that demands that after you’ve filled in a lengthy form requesting a new contract you then have to write them a letter asking them to process the form you just filled in and signed.

Anyway, the reason I was thinking about my brief time in psychology was the use psychologists make of a particular word:


Before anyone gets upset let me stress that naïve doesn’t mean stupid or ignorant. If you look it up in the dictionary you see words like “innocent” and “unaffected”. You even see phrases like “lacking conventional expertise”.

Psychologists use the word to describe a person who is encountering a situation for the first time. The first time you get behind the wheel of a car you are naïve about driving. The first time you get your hands on a cellphone you are naïve about cellphones. The first time you sign a credit agreement or a timeshare contract you are naïve.

However the problem is that there seems to be an epidemic of naiveté in Botswana. We see it all the time. There is a level of innocence surrounding us that causes endless problems. There is a lack of understanding amongst so many customers that results in them getting into trouble, all because they were naïve and innocent.

This is another of those situations where I actually do not blame consumers. I think that given everything we, including suppliers and stores, know about Botswana only recently emerging as a vibrant economy, there is a moral obligation on the part of these suppliers to make things clear. To educate us. They know that many of their customers have never signed a credit agreement or a contract before so I think it is their responsibility to make things perfectly clear.

I am prepared to go further than this. I think that any store or supplier that fails to make things perfectly clear is abusing us. Any supplier that feels the need to hide contractual terms in incredibly small print using words like “irrevocable” should be ashamed of themselves, particularly when many of their customers were not raised with English as their first language.

So yes, I think there is a moral obligation and you could even argue a legal obligation on the part of suppliers to make things perfectly simple to understand. The Consumer Protection Regulations clearly say that “causing a probability of confusion or of misunderstanding as to the legal rights, obligations, or remedies of a party to a transaction” is an unfair business practice.

However, of course there is also an obligation on consumers to educate themselves. I am a big believer in self-reliance (remember the P5 coin?) but where should a consumer begin? Should every consumer need to buy a copy of the Consumer Protection Regulations before they go shopping? Of course not.

This is another of those rare situations where (yes, I know Dichaba Molobe and I get uncomfortable saying things like this) Government has a role to play. It is Government that educates most of us at school. It is Government that publishes a free national newspaper. It is Government who currently has it’s own radio and TV stations.

I think we should be demanding that Government starts using these channels to teach us all about our rights. Why not a weekly supplement in the Daily news on consumer rights? Not a column waffling on about generalities, a column that describes a specific right that we can use every day when we are spending our money. Why not a TV program that educates us, exposes fraud and helps remedy problems that occur?

But we should demand even more than that. I think kids in schools should be taught the financial self-defence skills they will need later in life to protect themselves. Why not go even further? Why not send out Consumer Protection Unit officers to kgotla meetings, PTA meetings and special consumer rights awareness road shows? I know it might be reckless to compare consumer rights to HIV/AIDS but the approach adopted to communicate the facts about HIV/AIDS are the same techniques that we can use to educate the people on other subjects like our legal rights.

However, we will not wait for Government to do this. We are going to start it ourselves. Stand by for a deluge of information on your rights in this and our other columns, on our YaronaFm radio show, on the web and wherever else we can reach out to people.

This week’s stars!

  • Kgomotso and Ranthapeng from Shield Security for being super fast and recovering stolen goods!
  • Fred at Orange for being calming and helpful!
  • Officers T J Kgati and M D Mgantesang at Old Naledi police station for being quick and efficient.
  • Margaret at Grand Palm (aka Peermont Global) for really knowing what customer service is. We are told that she is a valuable asset to her company.

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