Right to repair codes of conduct currently being finalised by the Competition Commission were always bound to provoke opposition from vested interests, citing issues varying from safety concerns to job losses. The view of Right to Repair South Africa (R2RSA) is that the code is not prescriptive, but is aimed at protecting consumers and offering them additional options – and is ultimately unstoppable.
“Competition is good for the consumer and is empowering - the right to choose being a fundamental human right,” says Gunther Schmitz, the Chairman of R2RSA. He explains that the move follows a worldwide trend that started in the US. The US automotive industry was in fact the first to attract legislation requiring automotive Original Equipment Manufacturers (OEMs) to open up maintenance and repairs to independent workshops, without the vehicle’s warranty being voided. In 2012 the US state of Massachusetts enacted a law requiring automobile manufacturers to give repair shops and consumers access to spare parts and diagnostic repair systems. It took just one bill in one state, and within two years a national memorandum of understanding was signed by manufacturers, repairers and parts dealers to avoid a domino effect in other states, and has since spread internationally.
Schmitz says no legislation is being drafted in South Africa that will in any way effect existing regulation around road safety or laws protecting the consumer: rather the Competition Commission has developed a voluntary code of conduct which recognises that if a consumer bought a car he or she owns it and has the right to choose a repairer. Automobile dealers and OEMs objected to the draft code, arguing still that it would create safety risks as there would be no policing of the quality of parts used, and might lead to the collapse of the entire South African retail automotive supply chain along with tens of thousands of jobs.
“This is fear mongering. Already now any consumer can fix their car as they want. But OEM’s threaten with ‘consequences’ like withdrawing the warranty if the consumer dares not to use their dealership or parts even if they are exactly the same. The result of this has been that currently vehicle owners are typically locked into using the vehicle OEM’s own workshop and parts because it is embedded in the motor and service plans. These workshops come at a premium, and also err on the side of replacing parts rather than repairing them,” says Schmitz.
Such ‘locking in’ is affected by the refusal of manufacturer dealerships to share the resources needed to fix their products. They argue that this is common practice in other sectors such as aircraft manufacturers and mobile phones, computers and accessories. “In reality, this is not the case. For instance, the service and maintenance of aircraft is governed by the International Civil Aviation Organisation - not by the manufacturer. Airbus and Boeing don’t even make it into the top ten aircraft maintenance, repair and overhaul providers. So the principle of R2R has long been applied in civil aviation, for one.”
“In the US, the warranty is not voided because of independent companies carrying out repairs or services on anything from computers to cars. This is governed under the Magnusson Moss Warranty Act since 1975. Only in South Africa can manufacturers bully their consumers into using their dealership network.”
Such trends are in recognition of the fact that manufacturers try to push consumers into early upgrades when a replaceable part is broken – and consumers need protection from this. In all industries they will argue that third-party repair shops can’t be trusted and manufacturers need to be picky about what types of repairs they’ll allow, and will only replace the entire part. “Independent repair technicians can often repair such items, and typically this creates local jobs and supports SMEs as an enabler of local job creation - whereas replacement parts create jobs elsewhere,” says Schmitz.
“Arguments about safety are also misleading. Automobile manufacturers regularly recall vehicles due to safety defects, and dealerships sell cars that don’t fulfil the United Nations ECE regulations on passive safety. They gladly sell new cars in South Africa that they cannot sell in Europe because they don’t fulfil the minimum safety requirements. So their self-righteous arguments regarding safety are rather disingenuous.
“The same applies to the argument for the South African Bureau of Standards (SABS)-approved parts. Dealerships currently sell both cars and parts that are not SABS approved, also because SABS does not have the equipment or capacity to carry out all the safety tests governed in the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe (UN ECE) and required globally. These test procedures are extremely onerous and expensive, and OEMs have rightly pushed for globally Harmonised Technical Regulations. Demanding SABS approvals when most parts are approved internationally would potentially bankrupt the motor industry in South Africa. I don’t think the OEM’s would ever agree to having all their vehicles and parts re-tested by SABS. International quality standards and matching quality parts have a long history in Europe and elsewhere,” he says.
“Independent workshops would be replacing wear-and-tear and service items during the warranty period. Safety-related wear items are brake pads and tyres, which fall under ECE R 13 and ECE R 30 which is applicable in South Africa. Everything else falls under the warranty of the OEM and according to the current proposed code warranty repairs will be carried out at the OEM-appointed service provider.
“Manufacturers are trying to lock us out of our own choices regarding servicing and repairs. They argue they want to protect their intellectual property, but the precedent in the EU and US with the strictest enforcement of intellectual property laws could show that these are not affected. Consumers must be given the option to fix the things they own. This also goes a long way to breaking up economic concentration – South Africa being one of the most unequal societies in the world,” concludes Schmitz.