Prescription in South African law, governed by the Prescription Act 68 of 1969, plays a pivotal role in determining when debts become unenforceable. This article delves into the latest case law developments, shedding light on critical aspects of the Act. From the definition of “debt” to the nuances of acquiring “knowledge” and the impact of acknowledgments of liability, we explore key considerations that influence the prescription period. Recent cases, such as Makate v Vodacom (Pty) Ltd  ZACC 13 and Links v Member of the Executive Council, Department of Health, Northern Cape Province  ZACC 10, have significantly shaped the legal landscape.
Summary of the Law:
The Prescription Act stipulates that debts prescribe after a 3-year period. To prevent losing the right to enforce a claim, a creditor must initiate proceedings within this timeframe. Section 12 outlines the calculation of the prescription period, starting from when the debt becomes “due.” Notably, a debt is deemed due only when a creditor possesses the requisite “knowledge” of both the debtor’s identity and all relevant facts.
Recent case law, such as Makate v Vodacom, has refined the definition of “debt.” The Constitutional Court narrowed it to signify an obligation to pay money, deliver goods, or render services. This interpretation distinguishes personal rights from real rights, impacting claims arising from diverse contractual contexts.
In the realm of knowledge acquisition, the Links case clarified that, particularly in professional negligence claims, the party raising the prescription defence must show the claimant had sufficient facts to reasonably suspect negligence. Furthermore, the First National Bank v Scenematic One (Pty) Ltd  ZASCA 60 case introduced the concept of “deemed knowledge,” emphasizing the importance of reasonable care in acquiring necessary information.
The acknowledgment of liability, explored in “Acknowledgement of liability” in a ‘without prejudice’ communication: KLD Residential CC v Empire Earth Investments 17 (Pty) Ltd  ZAWCHC 83, highlighted that ‘without prejudice’ communications, despite their protected status, can interrupt prescription under Section 14(1) of the Act. The case reaffirmed the need for admissible evidence to establish such acknowledgment.
Addressing the commencement of prescription in the context of contractual acceleration clauses, the case provided crucial insights. It distinguished scenarios where the debt becomes due immediately upon breach from instances where the creditor’s election triggers the due date. This distinction emphasized the significance of precise contract language in determining when a prescription starts running.
Recent cases have significantly contributed to the clarity and legal certainty surrounding the Prescription Act in South African law. The refined definition of “debt,” insights into acquiring “knowledge,” the concept of “deemed knowledge,” the acknowledgment of liability in ‘without prejudice’ communications, and the interpretation of contractual acceleration clauses have collectively enhanced our understanding of prescription principles.
These legal developments underscore the importance of precise language in contracts, especially regarding when debts become ‘due.’ Parties must navigate the intricacies of the Prescription Act to protect their rights and obligations. The courts’ nuanced analyses provide practitioners and litigants with valuable guidance, fostering a more informed and predictable legal landscape in the realm of debt prescription in South African law.