AFRICANANTITRUST UPDATE: Recent referrals and merger prohibitions by the South African Competition Commission

by Michael-James Currie

The mid-year months of June and July has been a particularly eventful one from the South African Competition Commission’s (SACC) perspective. Following the referrals of two separate abuse of dominance cases in the pharmaceutical and rooibos tea industries respectively, the South African Competition Commission has also referred a number of respondents to the Competition Tribunal for allegedly engaging in ‘cartel conduct’ and conducted a further set of dawn raids – this time on a number of feedlot and meat suppliers.

Most notably, however, the SACC has in a space of three weeks, prohibited four intermediate mergers outright and also recommended the outright prohibition of one large merger. Although it is not altogether uncommon that the SACC prohibits an intermediate merger, the SACC usually approves such mergers subject to suitable conditions in order to remedy any competition or public interest concerns. Typically only a nominal number of intermediate mergers are outright prohibited during any given year. It is, therefore, particularly noteworthy that four intermediate mergers have been prohibited in such a short space of time.

Cartels

Referral of the ‘Brick Cartel’

The South African Competition Commission (SACC) has decided to refer its investigation in respect of the ‘brick cartel’ to the Competition Tribunal for adjudication.

The SACC’s referral includes the following brick manufacturing companies: Corobrik, Era Bricks (Pty) Ltd (Era Bricks), Eston Brick and Tile (Pty) Ltd (Eston Brick), De Hoop Brickfields (Pty) Ltd (De Hoop), Clay Industry CC (Clay Industry) and Kopano Brickworks Ltd (Kopano). It is alleged that Corobrick has entered into separate bilaterial agreements with each of the respondents the terms of which amounts to price fixing or market allocation in contravention section 4(1)(b) of the Competition Act, a per se prohibition.

Corobrick has expressed its surprise that the SACC has referred the matter and has indicated that the SACC has misconstrued the nature of the various agreements.

The SACC appears to have concluded its investigation particularly expeditiously given that the investigation commenced in April 2017 and was referred to the Competition Tribunal three months later. Furthermore, it appears as if the SACC has based its case purely on the SACC’s interpretation of the wording of the relevant agreements. The per se nature of a ‘section 4(1)(b)’ contravention necessitates that firms are particularly cognisant of the wording and terms used in any agreement. Particularly if there is conceivably a horizontal relationship between the contracting parties.

Collusive tendering referrals

The SACC also investigated and referred two separate cases to the Competition Tribunal for alleged collusive tendering.

The first was in relation to the stationary industry. The SACC referred eight respondents to the Competition tribunal for allegedly engaging in collusive conduct in relation to the supply of certain stationary products. The SACC found that the respondents colluded in respect of a tender issued by the Free State Provincial Government based on the respondents quoting the same price for the various products as per their respective bill of quantities.

In a separate investigation, the SACC referred four companies for coordinating their bids in relation to a tender issued by the City of Cape Town for the provision of padlocks for high, medium and low voltage access.

Merger control

The SACC has recently decided to prohibit three intermediate mergers based on concerns relating to coordinated effects and one intermediate mergers on the grounds that the merger would likely lead to a substantial lessening of competition in the market. In addition to these intermediate mergers, the SACC also recommended the prohibition of a large merger in its referral to the Competition Tribunal.

Coordinated conduct

The first was in relation to the Jasco Electronic Holdings (Jasco) and Cross Fire Management (Cross Fire) merger. Notably, the SACC prohibited this merger principally on the basis that the merger was likely to reduce the number of firms operating in the relevant markets which would lead to increased coordinated effects. Importantly, a number of respondents in the fire protection sector, including Cross Fire, are embroiled in an investigation by the SACC in respect of alleged cartel conduct. The investigation follows dawn raids which were conducted on the premises of five fire control and protection services companies in March 2015. Two years later, the SACC referred seven respondents to the Competition Tribunal seeking the imposition of an administrative penalty of 10% of each of the respondent’s respective annual turnover.

Two of the respondents settled their case with the SACC by way of a consent order in in June 2017.

In assessing the merger, the SACC noted that Jasco was not implicated in the cartel but concluded nevertheless that “Jasco Fire will be incorporated into the cartel and the consolidation of the market will enhance or strengthen coordinated effects post-merger”.

The prohibition of the Jasco/Fire Cross merger follows soon after the SACC also prohibited the proposed joint venture between Nippon Yusen Kabushiki Kaisha (NYK), Mitsui O.S.K. Lines Ltd (MOL) and Kawasaki Kisen Kaisha Ltd (KL). In June 2017, the SACC found that the joint venture would likely create a platform for collusion and increase co-ordinated conduct in an industry which is being investigated by a number of competition agencies across the globe. The SACC itself is investigating the shipping line industry and NYK were one of two respondents who settled their case with the SACC by way of a consent order in 2015 for approximately R100 million (US$ 8.3 million).

The third merger which the SACC prohibited was the Timrite and Tuffbag intermediate merger. The SACC found that the proposed transaction in polypropylene-mining based support bags industry would facilitate and enhance potential co-ordinated effects and market allocation arrangements in the manufacturing and distribution of PBMS bags.

Andreas Stargard of Primerio states that “firms looking to merge in a sector which has previously or currently been subject to an investigation for collusion, may already be on the ‘back foot’ and will need to be proactive in assuaging the SACC that the transaction will not increase levels for potential coordination”.

Substantial lessening of competition in the market

The first of the two intermediate mergers prohibited on the grounds that they are likely, from the SACC’s perspective, to lessening competition in the market, was the Greif International BV (Greif) and Rheem South Africa (Pty) Ltd (Rheem) merger in the steel drum manufacturing sector. The SACC found that the merger would effectively be a merger to monopoly and that the pro-competitive efficiencies did not outweigh the likely anticompetitive effects.

In addition to the prohibition of the two intermediate mergers (which may be submitted to the Competition Tribunal for re-consideration), the SACC has also recommended that the proposed large merger between Mediclinic and Matlosana Medical Health Services be prohibited by the Competition Tribunal. The SACC is of the view that the proposed transaction would lead to a substantial lessening of competition in the provision of private healthcare services in the relevant geographic region.

In each of the three mergers, the SACC considered potential remedies but concluded that none of the remedies proposed by the merging parties were suitable.

Stargard points out that the “assessment of mergers in terms of both traditional competition tests as well as from a public interest aspect requires, at times, robust and innovative remedies in order to get the deal through in South Africa”.

[AAT is indebted to the continuous support and assistance of Primerio and its directors in sharing their insights and expertise on various African antitrust matters. To contact a Primerio representative, please see the Primerio brochure for contact details. Alternatively, please visit Primerio’s website]

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