By Julie Tirtiaux

On Tuesday 14 July 2015, the Swaziland Competition Commission (the “SCC”) Board heard the substantive issues related to the anticompetitive behavior of Eagles Nest and Usuthu Poultry Farm (the “Parties”). The hearing followed the decisions of the Swaziland High Court and Supreme Court respectively regarding the procedure. The hearing deserves attention as it triggered questions about the SCC’s power to impose administrative fines.

The penalties that were imposed on the Parties

In November 2010, the Parties entered into a supply agreement whereby they agreed to restrict output and allocate customers. Following a complaint raised by the Minister for Commerce, Industry and Trade, the SCC Secretariat, which is the investigative and administrative arm of the Commission, initiated an investigation into this alleged anticompetitive conduct.

In 2013, the SCC Secretariat required the imposition of a fine on the Parties. The SCC Secretariat recommended a fine fixed at 10 percent of Eagles Nest’s affected turnover, while Usuthu Poultry Farm would be fined five percent of its affected turnover. The affected turnover for each company would amount to the total turnover of the companies for the three years that the Parties had allegedly contravened the Swaziland Competition Act, 8 of 2007 (the “Competition Act”).

On 15 July 2013, an appeal was launched by the Parties before the High Court based on procedural grounds as they were denied access to the full record of the SCC Secretariat’s investigations and the hearing suffered from procedural fairness problems.[1] This dispute carried on before the Supreme Court which confirmed the High Court decision by dismissing the appeal. The Supreme Court held that the SCC Board “had not taken real decision on the substantive matter of anticompetitive conduct”.[2]

Consequently, during the hearing on 14 July 2015 the substantive matters were before the SCC Board for determination. Surprisingly, however, the SCC Secretariat, chaired by Nkonzo Hlatjwayo, introduced new issues which were not raised in the first place by requesting the imposition of one of two proposed sanctions;

  1. either both of the egg producers would be required to pay 10 percent of their annual turnover for the period whereby the anti-competitive behavior was occurring; or
  2. alternatively they would be liable to a fine of E250 000 or to five years imprisonment.

In addition, the SCC referred the matter to the director of public prosecution.

What does the Swaziland Competition Act state?

The SCC is empowered to impose the fine of E250 000 or five years imprisonment since Section 42(1)(a) of the Competition Act states that “Any person who contravenes or fails to comply with any provision of this Act (…) commits an offence and shall, on conviction, be liable to a fine not exceeding two hundred and fifty thousand Emalangeni or to imprisonment to a term not exceeding 5 years or to both”.

The first option imposing a fine of 10 percent of the Parties turnover, however, is problematic since in terms of Sections 11(2)(a) and 40 of the Competition Act, the SCC has the power “to issue orders or directives it deems necessary to secure compliance with this Act” (our emphasis). There is therefore no specific provision which empowers the SCC to impose administrative fines or to refer the matter for prosecution.

How should the Swaziland Competition Act be interpreted?

Different interpretations are given to these public enforcement provisions of the Competition Act.

From the SCC’s perspective, Section 11(2)(a) read with Section 40 of the Competition Act provides the SCC with a wide range of powers in so far as the enforcement of the provisions of the Competition Act was concerned. Thus, the Secretariat of the SCC deduces from a teleological approach, based on the effective enforcement of the Competition Act, that the Board has the power to impose administrative fines.

As far as the Parties are concerned, if regard has had to the text of the Competition Act, none of the provisions confer the SCC with the authority to impose administrative penalties.

Why can’t the SCC grant itself a power which was not given by the legislator?

Imposing administrative fines without having the power triggers two main concerns.

Firstly, it leads to unpredictability as to how the factors which determine how the penalties are calculated are to be considered. Accordingly, the silence of the Competition Act and the lack of guidelines in that respect undermine the rights of companies who cannot accurately contest a fine. You cannot contest a fine if you don’t know how it was determined. The lack of clarity would make it challenging for companies to contest the imposition of a fine, if there is no guarantee as to how the fine was calculated.

Secondly, allowing the SCC the power to impose administrative penalties while the Competition Act only empowers the SCC to issue orders or directives to ensure compliance leaves the door open to the SCC to assume other powers, which they would not be entitled to do so without overstepping its bounds defined by the legislature.

We will continue to monitor this matter and eagerly await the decision of the SCC Board expected for the first week of September.

[1] Eagles Nest (Pty) and 5 others v Swaziland Competition Commission & Another (1/2014) [2014] SZSC 39 (30 May 2014, see pages 15-16.

[2] Ibid, see page 60 paragraph 8.

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