If more middle-class people realised that campaigning against private power abuses is as important as contesting the public variety, we might have an active consumer movement that would force companies to take their market more seriously.
UNCHECKED power does not get prettier if it is wielded in private, not public, hands. On this page a few days ago, Itumeleng Mahabane told a personal story that showed that the public power of the home affairs department is wielded in a more citizen-friendly way than we are often told. My own experience with a private corporation points to another reality that is often ignored — how private economic power can be wielded here with total contempt for middle-class people, let alone the poor.
The details of my recent travails at the hands of MultiChoice need not be repeated here — they appeared on a website that airs consumer complaints. Suffice it to say that the company’s incompetence and indifference to its customers cost me money and inconvenience. Having treated me significantly worse than most government offices ever have, MultiChoice did not bother to defend itself or apologise — it simply declared that it owed me nothing and the problem it had caused me was of no interest to it. This is no isolated incident. The website on which I complained contains scores of complaints against MultiChoice, which have no doubt been treated with the same contempt.
Nor is it the only company that treats customers as if they do not matter. Many in the suburbs recount tales of callousness and contempt for consumers at the hands of banks or life offices, medical aids or cellphone companies. The common thread is that these are all industries that offer services to the middle class and the affluent. Some sell to poorer citizens but poor people can rarely afford satellite TV or medical aid or many financial services. Those who insist that this is a sign of the inequalities in our society are obviously correct. But what we often forget is how unaccountable these companies are even to their middle-class market.
In theory, those of us who are badly treated by them can hold them accountable by no longer buying their service. But this option is often more theoretical than real. MultiChoice may not be a technical monopoly since it is possible to watch TV without it, but it presumably knows that sports fans and news junkies have little option but to stay with it since it has bought up the rights to the major events and channels. Moving from one cellphone company to another while retaining your number is not for the faint-hearted, and employees often have no choice of medical aid. So, in practice, consumer choice is a blunt or nonexistent weapon and the only way to ensure better service would be an active consumer movement. Yet there is little consumer activism here compared with societies with more competitive economies than ours.
The fact that the companies serve middle-class people deepens the mystery of the missing consumer movement. Poor people often lack the resources, confidence or access to decision-makers to defend their rights. Middle-class people have all three, so we would expect companies that serve them to face constant consumer pressure for adequate service. So why are they able to get away with an attitude that treats consumers with contempt?
The answer may lie in the mind-set Mahabane’s article challenged — one in which all government service is assumed to be inferior. This is surely a symptom of a deep-rooted attitude that assumes that the government since 1994 is inevitably incompetent and contemptuous of people, while business is always efficient, competitive and benevolent. People who think this way may grumble about how some companies treat them. But, in the main, they will conclude this is a price worth paying because companies are a boon to society and the government a burden. For some, this stems from an attitude that is sympathetic to companies because they are run by people like "us" and hostile to the government because it is run by people like "them".
The obvious consequence is that people put up with incompetent and arrogant treatment by companies not because there is nothing they can do about it but because they choose not to band together to use democratic rights to hold the companies to account. And so the effect of demonising the government is to let businesses that do not care about their customers off the hook and to prevent middle-class people from looking after their own interests.
We can condemn poor government service and contempt for citizens by public officials and be just as critical of the same attitudes when we find them in privately owned companies. If more middle-class people realised that campaigning against private power abuses is as important as contesting the public variety, we might have an active consumer movement that would force companies to take their market more seriously.
Until that happens, the immediate victims of an attitude that fixates on public power and ignores the private variety may be not the government but the very middle-class people who are trapped in this view of the world.
• Friedman is director of the Centre for the Study of Democracy.
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