Victor Maphosa Herald Correspondent
Fuel companies are once again trying to renege on fuel coupons bought in advance by giving just 10 litres for the 20 litre coupons following a surge in fuel prices after the alignment of retail prices to the new auction exchange rate.
The same problem occurred early last year soon after fuel prices increased when excise duties were raised to bring retail prices into line with regional trends.
The fuel companies were at the time forced to honour their coupons for full volumes on the basis that they had sold coupons for specific sums and were supposed to have used that money to procure more fuel to fulfil their side of the bargain.
Scores of individuals, companies and Government ministries and departments paid for diesel and petrol in advance using the coupon system or refuel cards.
While motorists were stuck with the rejected coupons and fuel cards, companies like Redan and Puma Energy resolved to convert 20-litre coupons bought in local currency to 10-litre DFI coupons.
DFI coupons can be used at service stations selling fuel imported directly by the coupon issuer using free funds.
The conversion was done without consultation and appears like a “take-it or leave-it” condition with the only other available option being for motorists to indefinitely wait until local currency coupons and refuel cards get back their buying power.
No one knows when, and the companies involved are not hinting on when the fuel will be available for local currency coupon holders.
Some desperate motorists had to take the offer as they needed fuel now.
A notice by Redan Coupon Private Limited to its customers reads:
“In light of the sporadic fuel supply that we have been facing during the past weeks, Redan is offering to convert coupons and refuel card balances that were purchased using local currency into DFI coupons.
“Customers may convert their fuel volume at the current conversion rate of $1 as to DFI 0,5 litre . . . ”
Authority (Zera)acting chief executive officer Mr Eddington Mazambani said fuel coupons constitute a binding contract between a consumer and the service provider and Zera has since moved in to protect the interests and rights of the consumers.
“Fuel coupons constitute a contract between a consumer and the service provider of the product.
“While there are conditions that govern the transaction of fuel in coupon form, the rights of consumers have to be protected as there is a legitimate expectation of fuel having been purchased in advance.
“The authority has been in touch with some licensees following complaints from motorists citing difficulties in redeeming coupons.
“Licensees have given the authority assurances that they will give this matter due consideration and attention,” he said.
However, some legal experts have slammed the offer saying it was tantamount to fleecing motorists.
Harare lawyer Ms Jacqueline Sande said: “This is a breach of contract because the coupon represents the product which was purchased by the customer earlier before the price was increased.
“The supplier is obliged to honour the coupons to their full value because the product was purchased prior to the price increase and should therefore not be affected by any price changes.
“If the price of fuel had dropped instead the customer would similarly not be entitled to a refund of the difference and the same applies to a price increase. “The supplier is bound by the contract.”
Mr Tirivenyu Mutema of Nembo Attorneys said the service providers must deliver the amount of fuel purchased by the consumers.
“When they accept money from the public in exchange for fuel coupons, they make an undertaking to give to the bearers of such coupons the amount of fuel reflected on the coupon’s face on demand,” he said.
“The sale of a fuel coupon is simply an agreement of sale in which the purchaser makes immediate payment in exchange for deferred delivery. Having received due payment for the amount of fuel that appears on the face of the coupon, fuel firms cannot want to deliver insufficient fuel, that is typical breach of contract.”
Prior to the announcement of the 50 percent slash by fuel companies, some motorists were panicking to an extent of selling a 20-litre coupon to illegal fuel vendors operating near fuel stations in Harare for a paltry US$3.
Disgruntled motorists who were in a queue waiting to exchange their unredeemable coupons to the US dollar coupons at Puma head offices at Tendeseka Office Park, accused the company of short-changing them.
Others expressed disappointment over the issue and expected the situation to normalise.
However, Harare lawyer Mr Wellington Pasipanodya of Manase & Manase Legal Practitioners defended the position by Puma.
“We are certainly living in unusual times where everyone is trying to make the most of the money or investment that they have.
“Puma through its Redan coupon system sold Zimbabwe dollar coupons on the understanding that the purchaser was abiding to and accepting their terms and conditions which are easily accessible on their website.
“Those terms state that fuel will be made available subject to allocation of forex from the RBZ, it is an express term that motorists indemnify Redan and Puma in the event of change in policy enacted by the Government of Zimbabwe or such other factors which are beyond Redan’s control, including but not limited to, foreign currency shortages, failure by the Government to allocate foreign currency for fuel, increase in fuel prices, change of currency, change in interest rates and change in foreign currency exchange rate,” he said.