Saturday, 4 October 2014

Your rights

Several people have asked us recently to explain what their rights are as consumers. The simple answer is to direct people to the web site of the Laws of Botswana ( and suggest that they download themselves but that’s not very charitable. So here goes.

This isn’t a comprehensive list but it just a summary of some elements of the Consumer Protection Regulations that Consumer Watchdog uses all the time.

Perhaps the most important comes from Section 13 (1) (a) of the Consumer Protection Regulations. This says that “any supplier who offers a commodity or service to a consumer fails to meet minimum standards and specifications if … the commodity sold … is not of merchantable quality”. “Merchantable quality” is defined in the Regulations as “fit for the purposes for which commodities of that kind are usually purchased, as it is reasonable to expect in light of the relevant circumstances”.

Put simply this means that what you buy must actually DO what you were told it would do or what you could reasonably think it would do. A cellphone must be able to make and receive both phone calls and text messages. If you were told that you’d be able to surf the web with it then that must be true. An iron must heat up and allow you to press your clothes. A vehicle must be capable of transporting you from A to B.

The same section forbids suppliers from offering items that don’t “match any sample or description given to the consumer” or that aren’t fit “for any particular purpose made known by the consumer”. In other words what the guy in the stores says about the item you buy must be true. If you request a particular function or capability from the store then that’s what you must be given. Otherwise they’re in trouble.

Section 13 (1) (c) is another powerful weapon. This says that a supplier has transgressed if “representation is made that the commodity is new when in fact it has deteriorated, or it has been altered, reconditioned, used or is second hand”. In other words, new means new. A store is simply prohibited from selling you something that isn’t new unless they make it very clear that this is the case. A sofa they repossessed from a customer yesterday can’t be sold as new. The same goes for a cellphone that was returned by another customer, even if they never actually used it. It someone else took it out of the box and touched it, it’s no longer new. It’s as simple as that.

Section 15 of the Regulations is full of good bits. One of my favorites is in Section 15 (1) (a). This says that suppliers must offer commodities and services “with reasonable care and skill”. The guy who is repairing your cellphone, laptop or car has to possess and demonstrate the sort of skills you would expect them to have. You can’t expect miracles, the 10-year old Nokia that you dropped in the bath is probably dead. Sooner or later your ancient Corolla will be beyond repair. However you still have a right to expect anyone who does a job for you to do it in a reasonable careful and skillful manner.

The next section, 15 (1) (b), is awesome. This forbids anyone from quoting “scientific or technical data in support of a claim unless the data can be readily substantiated”. So the cellphone or computer repair people who make technical claims about the damage your device has experienced must be able to substantiate any technical claim they make. And that means in writing.

Add that section to the next one and you have a powerful public protection. Section 15 (1) (c) forbids anyone from promising “outcomes where those outcomes have no safe scientific, medical or performance basis”.

So the Herbalife distributor who told me some years ago that his products could help treat prostate cancer and also improve someone’s CD4 count was (as well as being “a clear and present danger” to public health) breaking the Consumer Protection Regulations. There was no way he could demonstrate that his concoctions could do these things, simply because they can’t. In fact anyone who makes a health claim about some product has to satisfy this test. They have to be able to provide evidence that what they promise is true. Not an anecdote, not something they heard from a fellow peddler of nonsense, it has to be real evidence that can be substantiated.

By definition therefore, homeopathy, acupuncture, reflexology and any electronic box of tricks that claim to offer various miracle cures are all contrary to Botswana’s consumer protection laws.

I’m also fond of Section 15 (1) (e) which says that if any transaction is cancelled “in accordance with the terms of an agreement, advertisement, representation, or provision of law” then the supplier must “promptly restore to the consumer entitled to it a deposit, down payment, or other payment”. So if a supplier fails to deliver your goods and you’ve given them an ample opportunity to recover you are entitled to cancel the deal and get whatever money you paid them up front back. It doesn’t matter if it’s the wedding photographer who didn’t take pictures, the car dealership that took your deposit and then increased the price of the car or the store that delivered second-hand goods instead of new ones. Whatever the circumstances, if you legitimately cancel a deal you must be given your money back. Simple as that.

All of these rules are wonderfully simple, easy to understand and remember and, above all, all based on common sense and simple justice. All you need to do is arm yourself with a little knowledge and you can protect yourself from all manner of abuse.

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