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Schools with 'exclusive' uniforms deals are being urged to confess – and may avoid paying fines

Phillip de Wet , Business Insider SA
 Nov 28, 2018, 06:18 AM
School uniform
  • The Competition Commission has been investigating anti-competitive deals between schools and exclusive suppliers of their uniforms.
  • Under a new agreement, school governing association Fedsas is encouraging schools to confess if they have such deals, and seek settlements for that unlawful behaviour.
  • Neither the Competition Commission nor Fedsas can confirm schools won't face fines, but both hope so.

An association representing the governing bodies of 2,070 schools has agreed to urge those schools to seek settlement with the Competition Commission for anti-competitive behaviour – hopefully without any fines attached.

But nobody is willing to guarantee that just quite yet.

On Friday the Competition Commission gazetted a memorandum of understanding with the Federation of Governing Bodies of South African Schools (Fedsas) that spells out broad co-operation, but also zooms in on the issue of school uniforms.

The Competition Commission has since 2016 been investigating the practice of schools appointing exclusive suppliers for uniforms, or elements of uniforms, that pupils are obliged to buy. That investigation followed on a 2015 warning by the department of basic education that any exclusive uniform deals should be of limited duration, and after competitive bidding.

Now it seems schools which failed to comply in the years since could face trouble.

Fedsas has agreed to encourage schools to approach the Competition Commission "to enter into settlement agreements" for deals with particular suppliers that have been running for more than three years – or since 2015 – and "where a supplier was not appointed through a competitive process".

Both say the idea isn't to levy fines on schools, as would normally be the case in admissions of anti-competitive behaviour, but neither could promise anything this week.

"This is part of an unfolding process," said Competition Commission spokesperson Sipho Ngwema. There would be a decision in that process "very soon", he said, but could not yet provide details.

"We are trying to emphasise the fact that schools are there for education, not for litigation," he said. 

"Hopefully this will be a preventative campaign, one to alert schools to the specifics of the Competition Commission process and what is required of them," said Fedsas deputy CEO Jaco Deacon.

Fedsas will also encourage its member governing bodies to adopt transparent procurement in general, Deacon said.

Fedsas does not yet know how widespread exclusive school uniform deals are, said Deacon, but believes it could be very widespread across the country.

In 2015 the education department emphasised that school uniforms should be affordable, and that schools should keep that in mind when deciding on their design.

“Preferably school uniforms should be as generic as possible such that it is obtainable from many suppliers," said a department circular. "Where this is not possible, exclusivity should be limited to such items that the school regards as being necessary to get from preselected suppliers."

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