Consumer Rights Day: Government goes after consumers when it should be targeting real criminals

15 March was World Consumer Rights Day, which is aimed at raising awareness of the rights and needs of consumers.

While the South African government pays lip-service to respecting consumers, it has instead criminalised them while simultaneously failing to combat the real criminality that plagues our society.

South Africa is in the throes of a violent crime crisis unrivalled around the world, yet the government seems bent on regulating every aspect of consumers’ economic choices. Beyond the obvious way in which rampant crime curbs individual freedom, government overreach in the form of overregulating the economic interactions between free individuals in South Africa has overcriminalised our society, thereby undermining consumer rights.

The Free Market Foundation (FMF)’s Section 12 Initiative launched its Criminalisation Index yesterday. The Index attests to the overcriminalised state of our legal system.

The collapse of the criminal justice system means that ordinary citizens are at the receiving end of very high contact crime rates, including murder, business and house robbery, and hijacking. The South African government has not shifted its focus towards putting an end to this. Instead, it is arbitrarily inflating the list of possible offences for which ordinary citizens can be charged.

Here are a few examples:

  • Parliament is currently working to adopt the Tobacco Products and Electronic Delivery Systems Control Bill. This will mean that those who choose to smoke or vape inside their own home while using their home as a place of work could be fined and/or imprisoned for up to five years.
  • In terms of the National Land Transport Act, a transportation service provider could spend up to three months in prison because they drove people to or from ‘nearby’ an international border without a permit. The same Act would see someone who provides ‘tourist transport services’ – as simple as driving tourists around to show them the sights on a fixed itinerary – without accreditation, spend up to two years in prison.
  • In terms of the Films and Publications Act, anyone who distributes or shows a film or videogame in public without being registered with the Films and Publications Board could be fined up to R150,000 and/or be imprisoned for up to eight months.

‘Rather than being concerned with dictating the behaviour of consumers and small business owners in this way, one would think that the government would have focused its efforts on combatting real crime,’ says Martin van Staden, FMF Head of Policy.

The core function of the state is to ensure the safety of all its citizens so that they can thrive and pursue their ends. ‘The social contract dictates that the free individual sacrifices their absolute liberty to the state so that the state may monopolise the lawful use of coercion to maintain order. The return on investment for the individual is that the state combats violence against their person and property’, says Van Staden.

With the 2024 election looming, the FMF calls on government to respect the freedom of choice of consumers and cease criminalising innocuous economic activity. Instead, government should prioritise violent crime.