Costly COMESA courthouse, ZA investigates Visa provider & holds ground on Sasol fine


Lots AAT news this Monday, from Sudan/COMESA to South Africa

Visa facilitator backed by one branch of government & investigated by another

In substantive antitrust news, the South African Competition Commission is reported to be investigating alleged abuses of market dominance by VFS Global in the visa support services market to foreign embassies.

VFS is a worldwide outsourcing and technology services specialist for diplomatic missions and governments.

The firm has now drawn the potential ire of the Commission, as it is now apparently the only outlet for foreigners to apply for South African visas and work permits, as well as for South African citizens to obtain entry visas for multiple countries abroad.

The irony here that we at AAT perceive is that the monopoly position of VFS appears to be based on the new immigration regulations imposed by the ZA government itself (notably the Department of Home Affairs) earlier in 2014: According to a report, the company had recently opened the doors of its multiple offices across the country — “The Pretoria (Gauteng), Rustenburg (North West) and Kimberley (Northern Cape) centres were the first to open on Monday, 2 June. It is envisaged that the last office will be opened on 23 June.”

The investigation – to be confirmed by the Commission this week, as it potentially launches a full-on formal inquest – was purportedly initiated by a competitor complaint from company Visa Request, claiming damage to its competing business flowing from the governmentally-imposed dominant position of VFS’s (allegedly pricier) services…

Commission stays course on Sasol

In more ZA news, Competition Commissioner Tembinkosi Bonakele is staying the agency’s strong course on the excessive-pricing fine imposed on Sasol, which is said to be appealing its R543 fine that had been upheld by the country’s Competition Tribunal, and which Commissioner Bonakele thinks “should be bigger”…

In our prior AAT reporting on the Sasol abuse-of-dominance case we said:

The S.A. Competition Tribunal is hearing the excessive-pricing portion (which was not settled) of the Commission‘s claims against the refining & steel giant this month.  The relevant legal underpinning of the case is the provision against excessive pricing by a dominant firm.  Precedent has declared prices excessive that “bear no reasonable relation to the economic value of the good or service” at issue.  Pheeew.  Facts.  Economics.  Nice.  Looks like a coming battle of the experts to me…

By comparison, in the U.S., antitrust law of course does not forbid “excessive pricing.”  While setting and reaping apparently high prices may be indicative of monopoly power, such acts are not in themselves anti-competitive or illegal in the States.  In Verizon v. Trinko, the U.S. Supreme Court held famously that:

The mere possession of monopoly power, and the concomitant charging of monopoly prices, is not only not unlawful; it is an important element of the free-market system. The opportunity to charge monopoly prices—at least for a short period—is what attracts “business acumen” in the first place; it induces risk taking that produces innovation and economic growth.

Interestingly, there is a notable history of failures in the area of ‘excessive pricing’ complaints in South Africa, as well, despite the statutory legitimisation of the cause of action.  In the prior ArcelorMittal and Telkom cases, the Commission and/or Tribunal lost in the end, either at trial or on appeal to the Competition Appeal Court.  That Court had found, in the ArcelorMittal case, that the antitrust watchdogs could not use the ‘excessive pricing’ provision of the statute to combat perceived anti-competitiveness in the “market structure rather than price level.”

Today, Bonakele is quoted as follows:

“These are different times.  I can promise you this matter is not going to disappear. Sasol is out of touch if it believes it can win the matter on the basis of technical legal arguments. This issue has to be resolved either through competition law or through government policy.

The issue in this case is fundamental to the development of our economy. We are dealing with resources that should be available to promote that development. The government plays an important role in the country’s industrialisation, and I believe it will be very interested in the progress of this case.”

COMESA’s costly courthouse

While the COMESA organisation has had trouble in the virtual world this year, its real-world endavours appear to be prospering: Its shiny new courthouse, built to the tune of over $4 million (equivalent to only 8 merger filing fees), has opened its doors.  The country’s Minister of Justice, Mohamed Bushara Dosa, last week handed over to the COMESA Secretariat-general the Khartoum-based court premises.

The court will notably hear antitrust and merger cases that are appealed from the organisation’s Competition Commission.
The glimmering COMESA court house in Sudan, built to the tune of $4.1 million

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s