South Africa: Surprise search and seizure visit at Unilever and Sime Darby

south_africa
Dawn Raids Rattle South African Consumer-Goods Brands

The South African Competition Commission (“Commission”) has confirmed that it has conducted such a dawn raid operation at Unilever South Africa (Pty Ltd) (“Unilever”) and Sime Darby’s respective South African offices during the morning of 03 April 2014.

Unilever is one of the largest fast-moving consumer goods companies in South Africa. Unilever’s business activities include laundry, skincare and cleansing, margarine, deodorants, household care, tea, hair care and ice cream. Household names which form part of the Unilever group include Sunlight, Knorr, Lipton, Ola and Omo.

Sime Darby is a Malaysia-based multinational company involved in sectors such as plantation, industrial equipment, motors, property and energy & utilities, with operations in more than twenty countries. It is the world’s top palm oil planter. Its South African operation, namely Sime Darby Hudson & Knight (Pty) Ltd, is located in Boksburg and it produces and sells premium fats and oils to bakery, food service industry and food manufacturers predominantly in South Africa.

“The Commission believes that the information that will be obtained from today’s operation will enable the Commission to determine whether or not Unilever SA and Sime Darby have indeed engaged in collusive conduct,” Acting Commissioner Tembinkosi Bonakele said.

The Commission has indicated that this raid forms part of an ongoing investigation into collusive conduct in the product markets for the manufacture and supply of edible oils and baking fats to both wholesale and retail customers. The Commission has further indicated that it has reasonable grounds to believe that employees of Unilever and Sime Darby have information which is relevant to the investigation.

The last dawn raid was conducted on 06 May 2010 at the premises of four electrical cables manufacturers and suppliers based in Gauteng province, South Africa. The various premises were searched by the Commission on suspicions of price fixing, market allocation and collusive tendering. This was done subsequent to a complaint initiated by the Commissioner on 16 March 2010 against Aberdare Cables (Pty) Ltd, Alvern Cables (Pty) Ltd, South Ocean Electric Wire Company (Pty) Ltd and Tulisa Cables (Pty) Ltd.

Sections 46 to 49A of the South African Competition Act of 1998 (“Competition Act”) empowers the Commission to conduct surprise search and seizure visits and to carry out so-called “dawn raids” to a firm’s business premises in order to inspect documents and interview staff where an infringement of competition law is suspected.

The Commission is empowered to enter any such premises when a judge or a magistrate has issued a warrant. Although a warrant is usually an essential requirement to ensure that a dawn raid is conducted in accordance with the law, the Competition Commission does have the power to enter and search a premises without a warrant, in exceptional circumstances.

If the Commission has reason to believe that a firm is in contravention of provisions of the Competition Act, or is in possession of information relating to a matter that is under investigation, the Commission’s investigators have the authority to enter into the firm’s premises in order to inspect and request copies of documents, ask for information in relation to any documents, take notes and interrogate employees, search and examine computer data and remove evidence from the premises. In particular, officials may examine files, reports and emails. The Competition Commission is entitled to confiscate computer hard drives. They may also take copies of documents.

UPDATE: 23-April-2014:

Based on reporting in a BDLive story, the Commission has said that it “is too early for the commission to say what data or documents were seized. Information and data are being analysed,” noting that it “believes that information that will be obtained from (the) operation will enable (it) to determine whether or not Unilever SA and Sime Darby have indeed engaged in collusive conduct,” acting commissioner Tembinkosi Bonakele said. “However, as part of any investigation, we also wish to urge anyone, be it business or individuals, with further information to come forward and assist the commission in concluding this investigation.”

Acting competition commissioner Tembinkosi Bonakele. Picture: FINANCIAL MAIL

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