In this dissertation I analyse the transformation of the South African law on the warranty against latent defects. I trace the development from pre-classical Roman law through to the enactment of the Consumer Protection Act 68 of 2008 (“the CPA”). Society’s ever-changing economic requirements and moral ideals serve as the driving forces behind these continuous legal developments.
Under Roman law the rules on latent defects initially applied to the sale of slaves. In contrast, modern South African law, as per the CPA and the values of the Constitution of the Republic of South Africa, 1996, specifically aims to protect the most vulnerable members of South Africa’s unequal society. The conservative approach adopted by the judiciary when adjudicating contractual matters hinders the transformation of the law of sale. Legal rules and legal thinking which reinforce traditional distributive patterns require reconsideration if societal-wide change, as demanded by the Constitution, can be imagined and accomplished. If the economic role of the contract and its power to divide and (re)distribute wealth is viewed as important, the link between poverty and the contract, and by association the consumer agreement, cannot be ignored.
Contracts, and specifically basic consumer and credit agreements, are often concluded in order to facilitate survival in our current social reality. The law as it relates to consumer protection and the sale of defective goods is directly related to the contract’s role in wealth distribution. Where sales agreements are in question, the unequal bargaining power of the parties can impede the purchaser/consumer even further. The consumer’s right to good quality and safe goods creates uncertainty regarding whether or not the seller’s liability under the common law warranty against latent defects may be excluded in instances where the CPA and the common law apply simultaneously. This uncertainty, if addressed as being part of the national project of transformative constitutionalism, the only conclusion that can be drawn is that the exclusion of the seller’s liability is, paradoxically, detrimental to the very subject that the CPA and Constitution aim to protect, namely the purchaser.