Some South African Huawei owners are hoping to get a refund. Good luck with that.
- Current Huawei devices will probably continue to work as advertised for now, but there is uncertainty about the exact future functionality.
- If you just spent nearly R20,000 on a top-end Huawei smartphone in South Africa, you may be thinking about returning it for a refund.
- Ja. About that.
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If you just bought a Huawei smartphone, especially a top-end model that can run to nearly R20,000, you may be tempted to return it for a refund this week. After all, it is no longer certain that you will have full access to apps such as Gmail, YouTube, and Google Maps in years to come, and there is a chance that security updates will be delayed.
But experts say your network provider or the store where you bought your Huawei P30 Pro probably does not have a legal obligation to take back the phone and give you back your money. Not even in a worst-case scenario where Huawei makes radical changes to its software.
Instead the Huawei owners who took to social media to express their demands for a refund, are likely to be met with the phrase "force majeure".
"This is an event beyond their reasonable control and not foreseeable," says Dominic Cull, a technology and commercial regulatory expert with telecommunications law advisory firm Ellipsis, of those selling Huawei phones in South Africa.
Cull believes that the decision by the United States to effectively blacklist the Chinese company Huawei is a textbook case of force majeure, a typical contractual clause that guards against anyone being held liable for what would previously have been described as acts of God.
"What can a company like Vodacom do? It is literally beyond their control," says Cull.
Google's suspension of its business relationship with Huawei does not immediately affect current devices, both companies have said, so a Huawei Mate will, for now, operate as it did last week. It may also continue to operate in the same fashion indefinitely, says electronic communications law consultant Justine Limpitlaw, and that uncertainty counts against consumers who want out of cellphone contracts that came with a Huawei smartphone.
"It is not yet clear that it is going to end like this... hopefully as a result of trade negotiations, everyone will work together."
So if the US grants Google an exemption to continue contracts with Huawei, or drops its restrictions on Huawei entirely, Google-owned apps could continue to work on Huawei phones, and Huawei buyers would have nothing to complain about.
On the other hand, Limpitlaw says, a decision by the US government could mean Huawei users in South Africa lose functionality on their phones – and that would be their problem.
"You can't use consumer protection laws to stop a government from taking punitive action against another government that it is in a trade war with," she says.
One way to think about it is if the government of Zimbabwe were to ban Facebook, says Limpitlaw. Nobody in Zimbabwe would be able to access Facebook, and they would have nobody to blame but the government of Zimbabwe.
Both Limpitlaw and Cull's only advice to Huawei owners in South Africa is to wait and see what happens.
"Take comfort in the fact that you are far from alone," says Cull. "There is significant consumer power at play here."
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