South Africa

#CapeWaterGate: ‘Unscrupulous water entrepreneurs’ to be flushed out

By Suné Payne 7 February 2018

A parliamentary committee last week called for the Department of Trade and Industry and the National Consumer Commission to rein in unscrupulous traders who increase the price of bottled water amid the water crisis in Cape Town. Trade & Industry Committee chairperson Joanmariae Fubbs told Daily Maverick this needs to be done to protect the poor and vulnerable from exploitation. By SUNÈ PAYNE.

While the Trade & Industry Committee isn’t directly involved in oversight of the water crisis, its chairperson, Joanmariae Fubbs, said the sale of water products impacted on trade regulations through the supply and demand of water.

On behalf of the committee, she will write to Minister of Trade and Industry Rob Davies as well as National Consumer Commission head Ebrahim Mohammed, asking the department to crack down on traders who inflate prices.

Relaying her personal experience in an interview at her parliamentary offices after the committee released a statement on the matter, Fubbs said she could previously buy a 25-litre bottle of water in Cape Town, but now she could only get a 15-litre bottle – at the same price. Larger bottles were increasingly hard to come by.

She said the incidence of this at some suppliers and retailers had spiked dramatically.

Fubbs said it was not fair on the vulnerable if prices were inflated and water became commodified.

Fubbs labelled those selling water at higher prices as “unscrupulous water entrepreneurs”.

The DA, meanwhile, has called on the Competition Commission to keep an eye out for collusion and price-fixing. Ghaleb Cachalia, DA shadow minister for trade and industry (and member of the committee), told Daily Maverick: “This is an extraordinary circumstance awaiting declaration as a disaster. Extra measures require consideration.”

When asked if the committee would propose laws to prevent traders from selling water unscrupulously, Fubbs said there was an urgency to curb inflated prices, and “in that kind of emergency, you don’t have the time”.

Daily Maverick compared the prices of bottled water in the Cape Town CBD at four of the biggest retailers – Shoprite, Pick n Pay, Spar and Game.

Prices varied and stock was low or depleted for larger water bottles.

For 500ml still or sparkling water, prices ranged between R4.99 and R8.99. There has been a increase in the sale of six-packs of 500ml of spring water. The current price of 1.5 litres of still and sparkling water retails between R8.99 and R12.99.

None of the big retailer stores that Daily Maverick visited on 31 January had any 5-, 15- or 25-litre bottled water on display as demand has risen dramatically and people stock up on water supplies.

Shoprite Holding Group told Daily Maverick it has implemented plans to ensure “ongoing access to water which is sourced and brought in from non-affected areas and alternative sources”.

We cannot forecast prices of our suppliers, but we will negotiate hard to keep prices as low as possible,” it said in a statement.

Daily Maverick spoke to two small shop traders in the city who said there had been no price increase yet from their supplier, Coca-Cola (which supplies Valpre and Bonaqua bottled waters).

They were waiting for a meeting with the company about the water crisis and the impact on sales and delivery.

At the time of announcing the measure, the Trade & Industry Committee said the “current increase in the price of bottled water being charged by some unscrupulous entrepreneurs amounts to exploitation of the poor and vulnerable and does not reflect the spirit of the Constitution”.

Fubbs said the minister and the National Consumer Commission must apply their minds “expeditiously to make sure unfair business practices do not prevail” in Cape Town. DM

Photo: Daniel Orth/(Flickr)

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