The Commission Doth Protest Too Much?


The defensive justification for the Commission’s healthcare inquiry by its acting chief has widely caused eyebrows to be raised…

As reported, the South African Competition Commission (“Commission”) has launched its first-ever market inquiry into the South African private healthcare sector.

The sector has recently been the subject of significant attention from the Commission, the South African health minister in particular, and the S.A. government in general. In spite of the perilous state of South Africa’s public health system, the government appears to have invested more time in deflecting from the obvious problems in the public branch by subjecting the private sector to a costly investigation.  From a procedural-history point of view, it is interesting to note that the market inquiry provision was brought into effect by way of Section 6 of the amended South African Competition Act. Although there were other areas of the legislation to be amended, it is noteworthy that only the market inquiry provision was brought into effect.

Many have suspected that the motivation behind the private healthcare inquiry was based on aspirations from outside the ambit of the Commission, particularly since the launch of the South African government’s National Health Insurance policy scheme (designed to achieve the noble aim of universal health insurance coverage, not entirely unlike the United States’ “Obamacare” effort) may ultimately cause the demise of a robust private healthcare sector.

Independence of Commission questioned

With this in mind, what is perhaps most interesting is a recent public submission made by the newly appointed 37-year old Acting Competition Commissioner Tembinkosi Bonakele in the South African media.  In an article co-authored with Ms. Paremoer, the Commission principal responsible for the healthcare inquiry, entitled Market inquiries an important advocacy tool (also published in the Sunday Times), Bonakele attempts to deflect any suggestions of government involvement in (or other ministerial influence over the pursuit of) the market inquiry. This approach seems at odds with Mr Bonakele’s predecessor, Shan Ramburuth – who was unceremoniously let go by the same government in a public display of shaming last year – in seeking to justify the motivation behind the private healthcare inquiry.  (We note that the present government has an apparent history of “letting go” unruly cabinet members in unusual and rather bombastic fashion, see here and here.)

Ramburuth’s Commission had previously stated expressly, for instance, that the inquiry was intended at least in part to review the sector for collusive behaviour, while Mr. Bonakele now disavows this rationale and claims that any such findings would merely be a side effect of the inquiry (“[o]f course, during such an inquiry, we may come across anti-competitive practices that need to be rooted out”).

In his piece, the Acting Commissioner seeks to reassure those who “remain confused about the […] intended market inquiry,” and states that the “inquiry is not a stalking horse“:

“we are simply seeking to understand how to improve efficiency and competition” in what he calls the “complicated web” of the healthcare industry.

Is this a case of Shakespearean “the [man] doth protest too much”, especially when keeping in mind that the private healthcare sector has previously been acknowledged to be competitive and efficient.  Mr. Bonakele has previously emphasised his independence, despite being referred to in the press as Minister “Patel’s man”:

“I haven’t responded to the media debate out there because I don’t think one has to stand on a mountain and say ‘I’m independent’. Actions speak louder than words.” [Source: BDLive]

Acting Commissioner Bonakele

The aim of the inquiry, according to the Acting Commissioner, is to improve competition and efficiency in the sector to such a degree that the ordinary man on the street will have full access. A very noble goal indeed, but when juxtaposed with the fundamental function and intention of the NHI,it is highly contradictory: the private healthcare sector is, by definition, not in the business of providing access to everybody. The public NHI body’s own slogan, on the other hand, shows that the national insurance programme fulfills precisely that role: “NHI is premised on the ideology that all South Africans are entitled to access quality healthcare services.”

What is perhaps of greater concern (with a wider applicability than just the healthcare sector, public or private) to competition-law enforcement in South Africa as a whole, is the confluence of the government’s industrial policy ambitions with otherwise supposedly independent Commission investigations and its competition adjudication based in the pure law & economics of antitrust. As previously reported in our piece on political interventionism in South African competition law, the Commission should seek to demonstrate its complete independence from the cabinet and executive branch as a whole, and avoid falling into the trap FTC Chairwoman Edith Ramirez warned against: the “proper goals” of competition law are best solved when a competition authority is focused on competitive effects and on consumer welfare and its analysis is not “interrupted to meet social and political goals.”

In sum, one must hope that Mr. Bonakele can be taken at his word when he says that, while “[m]aybe people think the minister will use the commission as a tool, but it’s just not possible. This is a legal process we are talking about.

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