2020 was a year filled with disruption, death, loss of all kind and illness. COVID-19 and the lockdown dominated our lives and work.
This reflected in our complaints and the work pressure we experienced. The graph on page 18 reflects the uneven inflow of complaints during the year. A similar trend was experienced by many ombudsman offices – with a slowdown in the initial lockdown period and an expected surge of complaints in the second half of the year. What was unexpected was the devastation of the second wave and its effect.
The challenges we faced were similar to those of other organisations:
We opened our office with the necessary safety protocols and limited staff as soon as it was permitted. This allowed us to become fully operational and to receive walk-in complaints, couriered complaints and documents and, after a while, postal complaints when the postal service was functional.
We received 14 198 written requests for assistance in 2020 (compared to the 11 915 in 2019) which included 6 756 chargeable complaints. This is the highest number of written requests the office has ever received.
A total of 6 512 complaints were finalised. This included the 3 624 full cases that were finalised, of which 31.73% were resolved wholly or partially in favour of complainants, and the 2 888 Transfers finalised.
The International Network of Financial Ombudsman Schemes (“INFO Network’’) cancelled the annual conference which had been planned to take place in Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia during September 2020. This cancellation was due to the COVID-19 pandemic. In place of the conference there were webinars during the year which kept INFO Network members in touch with one another and which provided valuable insights and lessons from ombudsman offices all over the world as they dealt with the pandemic and lockdowns.
New subscribing members
Emerald Life (Pty) Limited
In accordance with our obligation to raise public awareness of our existence and function we were involved in outreach initiatives. At the start of the year the emphasis was on making the public aware of the ‘’soft’’ amalgamation, the joint Insurance Ombudsman and the new Insurance Ombudsman portal for complaint submission. We also launched a joint social media presence as the Insurance Ombudsman and new posts with hints and information for consumers took place monthly.
We had to curtail some of our activities due to the lockdown, however we did release our 2019 Annual Report to subscribing insurers and the media on 6 May 2020 and the advertising value equivalent/AVE was R5.4 million in the following months.
Our main project in the second half of the year was to do outreach to advice offices. We sent our Annual Report, posters, brochures and fridge magnet handouts to advice offices.
A short video about the office was made and distributed to insurers together with an information brochure and this YouTube video was made available on our website www.ombud.co.za and will be sent to advice offices.
We also continued to interact with the media by way of articles and radio and television interviews to reach consumers.
The Cape Peninsula University of Technology
We continued the co-operation with this university which was first mentioned on page 6 of the 2019 Annual Report. In addition to the bursaries we provided, four final year para-legal students performed vacation work in the office. This developed into internships in 2021 for three of them. This is a mutually beneficial arrangement as the office benefits from their employment and the interns gain valuable work experience which should assist in their future careers.
Towards the end of 2020 we introduced a legal internship along the same lines as a programme that the Ombudsman for Short-term Insurance introduced in 2018. In co-operation with the Cape Bar we recruited applicants aspiring to become advocates, for legal internship positions in the office. They will acquire work experience which should enhance their applications for admission to the Bar. Two applicants were appointed to commence service in February 2021.
Tribute to staff
In line with the historically low staff turnover in our office, there were no staff departures in 2020.
In a very difficult year our staff adapted and performed above and beyond their duty. They did us proud and worked very hard under unfamiliar conditions with an unusually large workload. We were fortunate that despite some members of staff contracting the COVID-19 virus, there were no fatalities. Unfortunately, some staff members lost family and friends and had to deal not only with the grief but also with the fact that mourning could not take place in the usual way.
Denise Gabriels was appointed as Deputy Ombudsman Successor towards the end of the year and will take over that role after my retirement in 2021. We congratulate Denise on a well-deserved achievement.