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Watchdog continually snaps at its master

Jul 22 2012 13:42 Heléne Cilliers

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Pretoria – While the Consumer Commission loses one case after another because of following incorrect procedures, commissioner Mamodupi Mohlala-Mulaudzi is on the warpath.

Lionel October, director general of the department of tradeand industry, told Sake24 that Mohlala-Mulaudzi is now asking for the commission to be placed under the control of a different department after losing an earlier court case in which she had requested that the commission be placed under direct parliamentary control.

Public protector (PP) spokesperson Kgalalelo Masibi last week also confirmed that in March Mohlala-Mulaudzi had submitted a complaint to the PP regarding the department’s “abuse of power and handling of the commission’s finances”.

Masibi says an investigation into this complaint is almost complete.

There have meanwhile been many complaints, inter alia on the hellopeter.com website, regarding no or poor service from the commission.

This is despite Mohlala-Mulaudzi recently publishing a service charter in the Government Gazette, in which she undertook to protect consumers from unethical business practices and misconduct.

According to October, the department of trade and industry is particularly concerned about what happened in the Auction Alliance matter. The Consumer Tribunal set aside the commission’s compliance notice to the auctioneer.

“The minister sent the commissioner an official letter asking her to introduce corrective measures, he said.

“We have fought long and hard for our consumer rights and in this case it would appear that the consumer’s rights have been violated.”

He says the department has also received a report by the Consumer Tribunal regarding matters before it in which the commission seems to demonstrate a lack of planning as well as administrative problems.

“As a result of what appears to be a pattern, we have asked the commissioner to report on what appear to be simple procedural errors,” says October.

Robby Coelho, a partner at the Webber Wentzel firm of attorneys, says in a recent statement that he complimented the commission on its determination and enthusiasm, but believed it to be acting irresponsibly towards businesses by regularly issuing faulty compliance notices.

“A mere handful of big companies have the capacity and resources to defend themselves,” says Coelho.

In some instances small enterprises are obliged to comply with the notices, even if the complaints against them are unjustified, and it sometimes costs far less to settle than to oppose a matter.

“The aim and objectives of the Consumer Protection Act are very important and the commission carries out a critical function to ensure that these are achieved, but it has to execute its powers competently and legally,” says Coelho.

Geordin Hill-Lewis, DA spokesperson on trade and industry, who two months ago declared that the only losers in a war between the department and the commissioner were ordinary consumers who had previously benefited under Mohlala-Mulaudzi’s tenure, this week said: “What we now see at the commission is heartbreak for ordinary consumers.”

According to him, the portfolio committee on trade and industry is regularly informed about problems at the commission.

“The heart of the problem is the total disintegration of relations between the consumer commissioner and the department.

“Things have become so bad that the department no longer gives the commission its budget, which means that its email systems are not being managed and it is not able to pay its accounts or even its staff,” says Hill-Lewis.

“It also means that the commission cannot pay for good legal advice, resulting in it losing certain high-profile cases, such as its painful defeat in the DStv matter and more recently that of Auction Alliance,” he says.

October says there are no personal feeling at play between the department and Mohlala-Mulaudzi.

“We manage 15 other agencies and have never had a problem with responsible officials. The problem is one of management.

"In the case of the Consumer Commission the commissioner does not want to accept the minister’s authority.”

He says it is also not true that the commission has no resources.

“The department pays all the commission’s running expenses, such as telephone accounts, salaries and the rental contract.

“There were problems with the commission’s financial systems and we asked for them to be rectified.”

In a letter that October sent Mohlala-Mulaudzi last week, he says the department is being inundated with media enquiries about maladministration at the commission and she has been asked to give this urgent attention and inform the department of progress.

Dr Wilmot James, DA chief spokesperson on trade and industry, says it is of utmost importance for Trade and Industry Minister Rob Davies urgently to do whatever necessary to make the Consumer Commission a fully functional entity.

He says the sooner the commissioner is replaced the better.

Sake24 is unfortunately unable to present the commission’s side since Mohlala-Mulaudzi has failed to respond to questions put to her five days ago.

But she did complain to the press ombudsman that she suspected this article would be unbalanced and unfair without her comments.

 - Sake24

- For more business news in Afrikaans, visit www.sake24.com
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