Friday 23 November 2007

Dear Minister

As you are aware the Consumer Protection Act places various obligations upon your Ministry. The Act, in it’s own words, seeks to “provide for the protection of the interests of consumers by means of investigation, prohibition and control of unfair business practice”. This Act, which has existed for almost 10 years, also states that you, as the Minister, can authorise Regulations that prescribe exactly how businesses may operate in order to safeguard the interests of consumers. These Regulations were finally approved in 2001.

Section 5 (3) of the Act states that the Consumer Protection Office may “permit and consider representations made by any consumer organisation or movement on any matter of consumer protection”.

Please therefore accept this letter as a formal representation from Consumer Watchdog regarding various business practices that we believe require urgent and decisive action in order to prevent the abuse of consumers in Botswana.

For instance Section 17 (1) (d) of the Regulations states that it is an unfair business practice if a supplier causes “a probability of confusion or of misunderstanding as to the legal rights, obligations, or remedies of a party to a transaction”.

We believe that a good example of this is a locally-based company who include a clause in their contracts that states that the contract is “irrevocable”. This company then typically refuses to allow customers ever to withdraw from the contract. Furthermore this company refuses to allow the customer to even see and review this contract before they sign it. This strikes us as a very clear case where the “probability of confusion” is very high. We believe that action is required to make sure that consumers are protected from such deception.

The Regulations also state in Section 17 (1) (g) that it is an unfair business practice if a supplier takes advantage “of a consumer's inability reasonably to protect his interests by reason of ... inability to understand the language of an agreement presented by the other party to the transaction who knows or reasonably should know of the consumer's inability”.

In simple terms if a customer is presented with a contract written in English and that customer obviously does not have a good command of English then the supplier has committed an unfair business practice. We believe that action is required to prevent this abuse.

Section 15 (1) (c) states that it is an unfair business practice if a supplier offers a commodity promising “outcomes where those outcomes have no safe scientific, medical or performance basis”. We see an enormous number of advertisements for health products that clearly fail this test. Whether for weight loss, asthma or, most worryingly, for boosting the immune system, these products clearly have no scientific basis that can be demonstrated.

These products are deceptive, exploitative and extremely dangerous given the health status of many of our families, friends and neighbours. We believe that action is urgently required.

Another key piece of legislation is the Control of Goods, Prices and Other Charges Act that originally commenced in 1973. This Act, amongst other things, enables you, as the Minister, to regulate the marking of goods for sale to the public.

The Regulations that followed this Act offer one very important protection that is almost completely overlooked by stores. When goods are offered for sale either on hire purchase or on credit the store is obliged to state not only the number and amount of the instalments and the deposit, but critically they are also obliged to disclose “in characters of similar size” the “total amount to be paid by way of deposit and instalments”.

As any consumer will be able to tell you this is almost unheard of. The newly enforced South African National Credit Act gives South Africans this right but we have had this protection for 33 years.

We recently wrote to all the stores that offer goods on credit and so far only one of them has confirmed that they will change their advertising and labelling to meet this obligation. The remainder appear to plan to ignore this regulation. It appears that they plan to continue to show contempt for their customers and the laws of the country within which they operate.

In summary we believe that the consumers of Botswana are very well equipped with legal protections that far outstrip those of our neighbours. However we deserve to have these protections actively enforced.

Both the Consumer Protection Act and the Control of Goods, Prices and Other Charges Act empower your Ministry to actively enforce these various regulations. Furthermore they prescribe a range of actions your Ministry can undertake with organisations to ensure that they obey the law. This ranges from a power to summon stores to give evidence, to search and seize documents and goods, to institute court proceedings and even to appoint a curator to take over the running of businesses where consumer interests require that level of protection. Of course a store that ignores the powers or actions of your Ministry may then face criminal proceedings as a result.

We believe that the consumers of Botswana need greater intervention by your Ministry and the active enforcement of the various Regulations that have been approved. If we at Consumer Watchdog can help your officers in any way we will place ourselves at their disposal. The evidence we possess is freely available to you and your departments.

We look forward to hearing from you.

With best regards

The Consumer Watchdog Team

This week’s stars!

  • Letsweletse and Thobega at Total Filling Station at Game City for service with a smile.
  • Boikgopolo Letlamoreng at Lesedi Motors for going above and beyond the call of duty.

We still have Wimpy vouchers to give away. Our friends at Wimpy have donated lots of P50 vouchers for us to give away to our readers. All you have to do is nominate someone who you think delivers excellent service and YOU get a Wimpy voucher. They get celebrated here in Mmegi, we’ll write to their Managing Director praising them and they get to come to our next Consumer Watchdog Party to be celebrated by you-know-who.

Friday 16 November 2007

The Watchdog does maths

Shall I give stores a breather this week? The last few weeks we’ve been going on and on about store credit schemes, about what stores are meant to do to help us, about their legal obligations and, most importantly, about how almost all stores are totally ignoring some of their obligations.

A few weeks ago we wrote to all the stores we thought might sell things on credit asking them to explain why they ignore one of the most important rules. This the 33-year old rule that says that if a store offers something for sale on credit then they are obliged to tell us, “in characters of similar size” what the total credit price will be. If it’s offered for sale for P199 for cash and the total credit price turns out to be P1,752 then they must tell us that.

By the way, that’s a real example. I know it sounds unbelievable but there is a store that is advertising a glorified bed sheet for exactly those amounts. That’s a staggering P1,553 in credit charges. Buy this sheet on credit and you’ll pay nearly nine times as much as your neighbour who buys it for cash.

I don’t know where to begin to express how dreadful this is. I firmly believe that government has no role in telling you and me what we should and should not buy, nor what we should pay for non-essentials like bed sheets. But this is genuinely scandalous. The store should be ashamed of itself, firstly for charging such astronomical amounts in credit charges, secondly for not being perfectly open about the cost and lastly for even thinking of selling something so cheap on credit at all.

We’ve still only had a couple of responses to our letter but rest assured we’re going to post all the responses we’ve had from the stores on our web site so you can see who’s prepared to be open about their credit schemes.

Back to the rules. As I’ve mentioned before our South African cousins now have a new law called the National Credit Act. The Regulations that emerged from this Act are now in force and one of them says that all adverts must state the total credit price. Fair enough. But we’ve had the same rule for 33 years. The Control of Goods (Marking of Goods) Regulations 1974 says exactly the same thing. So why are stores just ignoring our laws?

There we were, walking around town last week when we stumble across another furniture store full of posters advertising their products. Strangely one poster advertised some things in Pula and others in Rand which is fair enough I suppose. However the most curious thing was that the Rand-priced items showed the full credit amount but the Pula-priced ones didn’t.

But being a strange creature with a slightly mathematical brain I noticed something odd. Literally odd. They advertised a cellphone that was available for cash at R1,299.95. They then stated that on credit it would cost a deposit of R130 and then 24 instalments of R97. Now before I go any further, take a look at those numbers and if you think about it you can see that whatever the total repayment turns out to be it has to be an even number. The maths cannot result in an odd number. So how come the total credit price they state is R2,311?

The charitable explanation is that they must have failed their maths exams. Otherwise it might seem like they’re trying to deceive us. He real credit price is R2,458. 130 + 24 x 97 comes to R2,458. So maybe they’re just not very good at maths?

Then the advertisement shows the credit percentage rate. Perhaps they were off sick the day the teacher did percentages? They claim that this an interest rate of 27.5%.

No, it’s not.

The total “extra” you pay buying this phone on credit is R1,158. That’s payable over 2 years so each year you’ll pay R579 in credit charges. 579 expressed as a percentage of the purchase price of R1299 is 44.5%.

So where do they get the figure of 27.5%? I suspect that this is the interest rate they have decided to tell us they charge. What they then do is exclude a whole lot of other charges from the calculation. All those “handling”, “insurance” and “miscellaneous” charges are simply ignored.

In parliament in the United Kingdom MPs aren’t allowed to accuse each other of lying. It’s judged to be “unparliamentary language”. However Winston Churchill once got around this by referring to something as being a “terminological inexactitude”.

I’m going to adopt the same approach. Of course the stores would never deliberately lie to us about their credit charges. Of course not. Who would ever think such a thing? It would be unimaginable.

But I do think it’s fair to say that some stores, no names mentioned at this stage, are guilty of a monstrous terminological inexactitude.

In fact it us, their customers, who are lying. We’re lying down and taking it.

This week’s stars!

  • Andries at Woolworths at Kgale Shopping Centre for going out of his way to help a customer with a smile.

We still have Wimpy vouchers to give away. Our friends at Wimpy have donated lots of P50 vouchers for us to give away to our readers. All you have to do is nominate someone who you think delivers excellent service and YOU get a Wimpy voucher. They get celebrated here in Mmegi, we’ll write to their Managing Director praising them and they get to come to our next Consumer Watchdog Party to be celebrated by you-know-who.

Friday 9 November 2007

Do we deserve it?

There is an old saying in politics that the people get the government they deserve. Now before you think I’m going to attack our government let me stop you. That comes later. First I’m going to adjust that saying slightly.

Customers get the quality of products and services they deserve.

I’m not saying that customers deserve bad treatment. I’m not saying that we deserve to be disrespected. I’m certainly not saying we deserve to be abused. However I do think we, as consumers, have a role to play in making sure we ARE respected and not insulted. We need to start demanding respect rather than just expecting it.

One of the first things we can do is not walk headlong, with our eyes wide open, into trouble. To begin with we can stop buying what can politely be described as Completely Ridiculous Awful Products. I went with my family recently to the Fireworks night at the Gaborone Cricket Club. The evening was great fun, thousands of people having a great time seeing their friends, having a few cold ones, watching some awesome fireworks and generally enjoying a great evening.

The trouble was with some of the merchandise on offer. Kids were spending their pocket money on the cheapest, nastiest plastic toy guns from a particular stall. Based on my children’s experience that night these toy guns have an average lifespan of around 2 hours before they break. Luckily they broke while we were still there and when we got back to the stall to demand a refund there was a queue of deeply unhappy kids all demanding the same thing. The stallholders however didn’t seem to understand that they had little choice in the matter. It was only when a bunch of adults started shouting and the kids starting crying that they realised this was probably not the best form of advertising they could construct. The kids got their money back.

But we, the parents were responsible for this. We allowed our kids to buy these Completely Ridiculous Awful Products. There’s no excuse, we’ve all bought them before, we all know that they are the cheapest, nastiest, flimsiest rubbish that ever came out of a sweatshop in deepest China. We were to blame for it as much as the stallholders thinking they could make a few Pula from selling rubbish.

We allow this to happen by participating in it.

Why can’t we do better? Why can’t we fill this need ourselves? Why can’t we, as a country, produce our own toys? Everywhere I go I see people selling things they’ve made, either from wire or wood. Why can’t we make our own cheap toy guns out of a few bits of wood and a rubber band? We have the skills, we could have our own little village industry making toys that would cost the same and would last a whole lot longer that the C.R.A.P. from China.

So, back to getting the government we deserve. I am NOT making a political point. I am not talking about politicians, political parties of election winners. I mean the functions of government.

Who was the last person you know who got stopped and fined for speeding? We all know someone. Most of us ARE that person. But who was the last person you know who got stopped and charged for going through a red light. For driving through a pedestrian crossing when there were people crossing the road? For driving like a certifiable lunatic? I can’t think of anyone. Why not? Is it because the police aren’t “empowered” to do so? Is it because it isn’t illegal? No, it’s none of these reasons. It because we don’t demand it. It’s because we haven’t written to our local Station Commander or perhaps even the Commissioner of Police and demanded that they do these things.

And what about consumer issues? Why are stores allowed to get away with disrespecting us? Why are stores allowed to charge simply outrageous amounts of money so we can buy things on credit? Why are stores allowed to ignore their responsibilities under the Consumer Protection Regulations and the Marking of Goods regulations? Why? Is it because government isn’t enforcing them? Yes, but WHY aren’t they enforcing them?

Because we don’t make them enforce them.

There’s a reason why public servants are called that. They are there to Serve the Public. That’s us. They are there to serve us and whenever we are not being served they are failing us.

We really must send a message to our public servants that we know what they are there to do. We know what their job is. We are fully aware of their powers and responsibilities. We must start asking them WHY aren’t they exercising them.

Here’s a suggestion for Government. If you really think you can serve the public then give us a sign. Give us a hint that you really believe it and are prepared to do your job. The first thing you can do is place every single government job description on the internet. Then publish every department’s and every officer’s performance objectives. That way we, your masters, can see what you plan to do to serve us. We can then make sure you do.

This week’s stars!

  • Aaron at Apache Spur at Riverwalk in Gaborone. Our reader said they got “the best service experience ever! Aaron was just amazing and I'm sure that I'll be going back to Spur and I'll insist on having him serve me again!”
  • Lulu at Mmegi who according to someone from a rival newspaper is fantastic, never known to raise her voice, always calm and generally a star.
  • Unity from the front desk at The Voice who apparently is also incredibly courteous, professional and hard-working.

We still have Wimpy vouchers to give away. Our friends at Wimpy have donated lots of P50 vouchers for us to give away to our readers. All you have to do is nominate someone who you think delivers excellent service and YOU get a Wimpy voucher. They get celebrated here in Mmegi, we’ll write to their Managing Director praising them and they get to come to our next Consumer Watchdog Party to be celebrated by you-know-who.

Friday 2 November 2007

The good, the bad and the ugly

Consumer Watchdog is on a mission at the moment. For several weeks we’ve been going on and on about our recent discovery. The 1974 Control of Good (Marking of Goods) Regulations and the things that stores must do if they want to stay in business.

You may have heard of the new National Credit Act that was passed in South Africa in 2005 but that actually came into force in June this year. This governs the use of credit as a way of buying things. Now of course this only applies to South Africa but we could learn a lot from it. There are endless regulations on who can be given credit, how credit bureaux can operate and the information and remedies customers are entitled to. One of the best bits is Section 21 which states that if something is advertised or offered for sale on credit then the store MUST disclose various things. Most importantly they must advertise “the total amount of all instalments, including interest, fees and compulsory insurance”. It’s very simple. The advertisement must tell you the cash price and then the total credit price. No hiding behind just how much each instalment will be and how many you must pay.

BUT, this only covers South Africa. It doesn’t apply to Botswana.

Who cares?

We have the Control of Good (Marking of Goods) Regulations. Thirty-three years ago we passed a law that says exactly the same. Sorry South Africa, you were a late arrival at the democracy party and you’re a late arrival at the regulated credit party.

Our regulations say almost exactly the same thing. Whenever something is offered for sale on credit, right next to the cash price the store must show “the total amount to be paid by way of deposit and instalments”. The trouble is, I can’t help but wonder why, if these regulations came into effect 33 years ago, nobody has demanded that they be enforced?

Ask yourself whether you have EVER seen the total credit price advertised. I haven’t, not once. Not ever.

So anyway, being the busybody trouble makers that we are we wrote to all the stores we could think of asking what they thought about the regulations and why they weren’t abiding by them. Now I confess that’s a bit of a trick question. We can’t really expect someone to abide by a regulation they’ve never heard of. Surely though we would expect that the various bodies who are there to protect us like the Consumer Protection Unit, the local councils, the Ministry of Trade & Industry would have done something? Seems like they didn’t know about the regulations either.

In case you’re interested you can see a copy of out letter on our web page. So what reaction did the letter have?


A few stores have completely ignored us, so far at least. A couple had the good manners to acknowledge the letter and tell us that they’ll get back to us once they’ve consulted with their legal advisors, marketing teams and probably their psychiatrist.

However there was some good news. Almost within minutes we had a call from Mmabalao in Gaborone who said they wanted us and the public to know that they don’t sell on credit at all. They do lay byes but they don’t like the credit idea one little bit. Loads of Living got in touch and said the same thing. Good for them.

Then a minor miracle. Ellerines got in touch and they just staggered us. Put simply their letter said:

“Whoops! Sorry. We’re fixing it.”

Then they went even further and explained that they’ve already printed all their promotional material for Christmas but they’re going to print some posters and handbills that will explain to customers how to work out the total payment and that Ellerines staff will help customers to do the calculations. Lastly they assured us that all their materials will abide by the regulations by February next year.

Stunning, simply stunning. A store that respects it’s customers and that is prepared to do what it needs to do to help them.

We’re not in the business of advertising or even endorsing any company’s products (other than our own of course) but this really does impress us. We’re not saying people should buy from Ellerines but we will say this. Take your hard-earned money to a store that respects you, to a store that clearly realises that customers are important enough to help them and treat them properly and to a store that is willing to abide by the law!

So I wonder how the other stores will respond. Rest assured we’ll let you know what every one of them says. We’ll also tell you which ones won’t respond!

This week’s stars!

  • Mark at Ellerines for showing how it’s done.
  • Andrew at Haskins for going completely out of his way to help a customer with an urgent need.

We still have Wimpy vouchers to give away. Our friends at Wimpy have donated lots of P50 vouchers for us to give away to our readers. All you have to do is nominate someone who you think delivers excellent service and YOU get a Wimpy voucher. They get celebrated here in Mmegi, we’ll write to their Managing Director praising them and they get to come to our next Consumer Watchdog Party to be celebrated by you-know-who.