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The best of times, the worst of times


By Rory Macnamara

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity,” as stated by Charles Dickens in his novel, A tale of two cities.

When thinking about the horrendous time that both the South African Bureau of Standards (SABS) and some of their clients have had to endure over the past 18 months, one cannot help but think of this opening line of the classic, A tale of two cities.

The SABS has for decades been the bastion of standards, existing only to protect the consumer and by using this as the benchmark, also protecting industries. These were the best of times.

But the past 18 months have seen the handling of a situation that had been caused by a lack of testing; clients being left in the lurch and losing business contracts because the renewal of certificates could not be done; suspensions in the SABS that caused concern; and a lack of meaningful response from the SABS to correct and control what can only be described as the worst of times. The Department of Trade and Industry, to whom the SABS reports, was all but dishonest in its dealings with those seeking to take the matter up with the highest authority.

It has been a time of foolishness in that a matter that needed to be addressed by the SABS (of this there is no question), was handled without any thought for the consequences of a unilateral move. As a result, untold damage was caused to the industry.

It has become the epoch of belief and of incredulity as the door opened for other certifiers or test centres to emerge, offering the same facilities in answer to that question which had never before even been considered: who else can perform this function?

The functions of compiling standards and enforcement had been in the SABS stable. At this stage, the South African National Standards (SANS) came into being (falling under the SABS) and the enforcement fell under the authority of the National Regulator for Compulsory Standards (NRCS), a stand-alone entity. This way the SABS was no longer judge, jury, and executioner, but the producer of standards, with SANS being its tester and the NRCS the enforcer.

During the time that the SABS was all to all, partial testing was an accepted practice. Sixteen years later when the realisation dawned that partial testing left the SABS open to abuse, the law had to be changed to accommodate the separation of ‘powers’.

It was at this point that the wheels came off, and all hell broke loose when SABS clients could not obtain certificate renewals, resulting in the entire industry becoming confused and befuddled, particularly when supplier clients demanded proof of certification. It opened the door for further abuse by allowing previously non-compliant suppliers to cash in. As we write this, the matter has still not been resolved and what is left is an angry industry, a standards body with a reputation in tatters, and other players entering the field.

Now, how do we get back to the best of times?

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