SA competition enforcer’s distribution monopoly case dismissed by Tribunal

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South African Breweries distribution case dismissed

The Competition Tribunal of South Africa has dismissed a monopolization case brought by the Competition Commission against South African Breweries (“SAB”). The Tribunal held that the Commission brought insufficient evidence to find that SAB acted in violation of the Competition Act.  Particularly in light of the significant resources which the Commission expended on the matter, it is a disappointing loss for the agency.

The Commission had alleged that SAB’s distribution system prevented competition between firms that distributed SAB-branded beers, but the Commission made no case against 90 per cent of SAB’s distribution and focused its case on the system of appointed distributors. This would account for only 10 per cent of SAB’s method of beer distribution. The Commission claimed that SAB has a market share of about 90% of ‘clear beer’ in South Africa. It went on to claim that SAB restricted competition between its distributors as SAB would appoint distributors and allocate exclusive territories.

The Tribunal held that the distributors appointed by SAB were not adequately independent to be in competition with each other and therefore their conduct could not be seen as being restricted. The Tribunal held that SAB’s conduct did not amount to unjustified discrimination.

The decision marks the first occasion that the Tribunal has dealt with the treatment of non-compete restraints in dual distribution arrangements in South African competition law. In deciding the matter, the Tribunal also introduced the novel concept of a “separate basic economic unit.  This concept operates as a measure used to assess the level of independence distributors have from their suppliers, which means that there must be a certain level of independence between a supplier and a distributor in order to contravene the Act.

There has been no indication that the Commission intends to appeal the Tribunal’s dismissal.

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