Friday 8 August 2008

Dear Mr President

Many congratulations on the first few months of your presidency. Consumer Watchdog was impressed by the emphasis you placed from the beginning on the 4 Ds but particularly on Discipline. We believe very strongly that our nation needs a firm dose of this rare product and it was refreshing to see it coming from the top.

I am particularly delighted to see the effect of your demands on the Public Service. It’s a huge task but already we think that the public are beginning to see improvements. All anyone has to do these days when dealing with a sleepy public servant is to mention the word “Discipline” and things speed up. No public servant wants you turning up at their office unannounced if you’ve heard that they are lacking some of that crucial D.

I also think that the rather hands-on approach you have adopted is deeply refreshing and a great example of true management. The word “management” comes from the Latin word manus which means “hand”. By definition the only true type of management is hands-on. Anything else is just having an office.

However I confess that I’m not 100% convinced about things like the forthcoming application of a 70% levy on alcohol prices as I’m really not convinced it will work as your advisors may have suggested.

Despite my misgivings I hope to be proved wrong. I hope that, as a nation, we do start to behave with more discipline regarding alcohol and it’s consumption. Personally I think this is more likely to come from greater enforcement of existing laws than trying to constrain consumption. If, for instance, drinkers truly believed that there was a real chance that if they drove while incapable then they would be stopped, prosecuted and banned from driving then I think they might be less likely to do it.

What most interested me was the law your team are using to implement this new levy. According to the press release the levy is being introduced under Section 3 (2) (d) of the Control of Goods, Prices and Other Charges Act. This states that the relevant Minister may introduce regulations governing prices including “a levy on such items of goods as may be specified and the manner of utilizing such levy”. So far so good.

So why are other regulations that are already there to protect us being ignored? Is your Public Service going to be as undisciplined with your new alcohol levy as they are with the existing regulations?

What does it take for the public to demand that they enforce the existing regulations?

Section 6 of the Control of Goods (Marking of Goods) Regulations says that when something is “offered for sale” on credit the seller must disclose, amongst other things, “the total amount to be paid by way of deposit and instalments”. In simple terms the total credit price has to be displayed in an advertisement when an item is advertised.

This is perfectly simple, perfectly easy to explain and would costs stores virtually nothing to include in their advertisements. So why don’t they? Why do they ignore the law and disrespect their customers in Botswana?

Is it because they don’t know about the law? No.

Last year we wrote to all stores outlining their legal obligations. We then wrote to them a second time. We published the letters in Mmegi and on our web site. We wrote to MPs and the Minister of Trade & Industry about the situation.

What happened?

Only one store that sells items on credit responded to us. To their great credit Ellerines responded, expressed their regret at innocently doing this and have subsequently changed their advertising so that it now shows the full credit price. Beares did the same. We would like to commend both these stores to you for their prompt action and for understanding that there are laws in Botswana that must be obeyed.

No other store responded positively. One said they were consulting their South African head office but we heard nothing more. The rest just ignored us.

The trouble is that Consumer Watchdog has no real power. We have newspaper columns and media contacts but no legal powers. The powers rest with the Public Service and they are simply not using them. Surely they can’t claim ignorance, can they? Surely the Public Service is disciplined enough to know it’s role and the tools it has to exercise that role?

Mr President, the people of Botswana are being badly let down by their Public Service in this area. The consumers of Botswana have excellent protections under the very same legislation that you are using to try to constrain alcohol consumption but these protections are being comprehensively ignored by the very people employed to enforce them.

We call upon you to ask the Ministry of Trade and Industry to start enforcing these laws with the same level of commitment and energy that they will no doubt adopt when applying your levy on alcoholic beverages.

Of course we cannot suggest that store credit kills people like drink-driving or alcohol-fuelled murder-suicides but many, many people end up abused, confused and poor because of the operations of the unscrupulous stores that sell on credit. This destroys families and ruins people’s hopes, dreams and aspirations. This is genuinely causing irreparable harm to our development as a nation.

We, as consumers of Botswana, implore you to take action to stop this, to help the people of Botswana operate free from credit abuse.

With great respect and regards

The Consumer Watchdog team

This week’s stars!
  • Toro and Dube from the butchery at Pick N Pay at Molapo Crossing for very friendly and helpful service.

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