Thursday, 9 October 2014

What is a consumer activist?

(First Published in New Era Newspaper - 11 June 2014)

Last week Wednesday, my first consumer column for New Era appeared and I was very pleased when a fiend indicated that he had seen my column. I was however very quickly deflated when he added that he had glanced through the article but was not actually sure what it was about. After some light questioning, I realised in fact that he had only read the heading and perhaps the first paragraph.

This led me to question (for at least five minutes anyway), why do I bother writing about consumer issues if not even my friends were reading it? Immediately though my common sense returned and reminded me that I am, and always will be, a consumer activist. This led me to the topic of today’s column, namely “What is a consumer activist?”

A consumer activist according to the dictionary meaning is “a person whose job is to protect the rights of customers, for example by giving advice, testing products, or trying to improve laws relating to the sale of goods.” This does explain what I do as an activist, except it is a non-paying job. That’s right, I do not get paid for trying to improve the laws relating to consumer affairs - in fact I do not even get paid for this weekly column. So what then motivates me and other like-minded individuals to propose boycotts, petition the government, write in the media and organise consumer interest groups on Facebook and elsewhere?
Personally speaking I consider the active role I play in consumer activism as a continuation of the active role I played in political activism during the Apartheid era in this country. There were “silly” laws during Apartheid such as black and coloured people were not allowed to buy white bread. That’s right. Not only were the people of this country prohibited from owning a business if they were not white, they were also prevented from buying white bread.

Since Independence, many Namibians have commented on the fact that the political struggle has been won but the economic struggle is not yet complete. Many of these same people are often times only referring to the ability of black business to enter the business environment and then be given opportunities that were denied to them under Apartheid. However, most of us forget to add that not only were the entrepreneurs and business people part of the struggle, but the consumer as a section of the population also played a crucial role.

The international consumer was roped into the struggle through getting the consumer to challenge the social order and help to change it through consumption choices which questioned their morality and indirect support of companies that did business with the Apartheid regimes in southern Africa.

After Independence however, many of our leaders in both politics and business have ensured that the laws have changed to accommodate the rising black business community and the employees in need of special regulations. There has also been a move to create new legislation through Affirmative Action (AA), Black Economic Empowerment (BEE), and now the New Equitable Economic Empowerment Framework (NEEEF) BUT nothing has come about in creating consumer protection laws to protect consumer from unscrupulous business practices, misleading advertising and profiteers (for example rent prices running out of control).

This is why I am a Consumer Activist - because I have the means and the talents to ensure the business practices and laws keep in mind the consumer - who is often the most ill-informed and least appreciated section of the community.

Milton Louw is the IT Project Coordinator at the Electoral Commission of Namibia. This column is written in his personal capacity as a consumer activist and the views expressed in this column are his own.



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