South African Market Inquiries: What Lies Ahead and is it Justified?

By Michael-James Currie

The South African Competition Commission (SACC) recently announced that it will be conducting market inquiries into both the Public Passenger Transport sector (Transport Inquiry) as well as investigate the high costs of Data (Data Inquiry).

These inquiries are in addition to the SACC’s market inquiries into the private healthcare sector and grocery retail sector (which are still on-going) and the recently concluded LPG market inquiry.

There are mixed feelings about the benefits of market inquiries in South Africa. Market inquiries are extremely resource intensive (both from the SACC’s perspective as well as for the key participants in the inquiry) and the outcomes of the inquiries which have been concluded (including the informal inquiry in the banking sector) are lukewarm at best. There is little evidence available which suggests that the resources incurred in conducting market inquiries in South Africa are proportional to the perceived or intended pro-competitive outcomes.

Leaving aside this debate for now, the SACC’s most recent market inquiries are particularly interesting for a variety of additional reasons.

Firstly, in relation to the Transport Inquiry, the Terms of Reference (ToR) set out the objectives and the key focus areas of the inquiry. In this regard, the ToR indicate that pricing regulation is one of the key factors which allegedly creates an uneven playing field between metered taxis for example and app-based taxi services such as Uber.

It should be noted that the metered taxi association of South Africa had previously and unsuccessfully submitted a complaint to the SACC against Uber for alleged abuse of dominance. The success of Uber in South Africa has widely been regarded as pro-competitive.

Both prior and subsequent to the complaint against Uber, however, an overwhelming number of metered taxi drivers (both legal and illegal) have resorted to deliberate violent tactics in order to preclude Uber drivers from operating in key areas (i.e. at train stations). In fear of having themselves, their passengers and their vehicles harmed, many Uber drivers oblige. It would be most interesting to see how the SACC tackles this most egregious forms of cartel conduct, namely market allocation (albeit entered into under duress).

Over and above the ‘metered taxi v Uber’ debate, there are additional issues which the Transport Inquiry will focus on – including alleged excessive pricing on certain bus routes, regulated route allocation and ethnic transformation within the industry.

What will likely become a topic (directly or indirectly) during the Transport Inquiry are the allegations, as African Antitrust (AAT) had previously reported, that ‘the “taxi and bus” industry is riddled with collusive behaviour. In light of the fact that most of South Africa’s indigent are fully dependent on taxis for transportation in South Africa and spend a significant portion of their disposal income on taxi fees, this is an issue which needs to be addressed urgently by the competition agencies by acting “without fear, favour or prejudice”’.

In this regard, the ToR indicates that “between 70% and 80% of the South African population is dependent on public passenger transport for its mobility”. The majority of these individuals would make use of ‘minibus taxis’.

The Transport Inquiry ToR do not mention this seemingly most blatant violation of competition law principles and it remains to be seen to what extent the SACC’s is prepared to investigate and assess hardcore collusion in the industry.

In relation to the second market inquiry, the SACC will also conduct an inquiry in relation to the high data costs in South Africa.

The High costs of data in South Africa seems to be key issue from the government’s perspective and the Minister of Economic Development, Mr Ebrahim Patel called for the SACC to conduct an inquiry into this sector. Further, the high costs of data in South Africa seems so important to economic growth and development that the Minister of Finance, Mr Malusi Gigaba, not only echoed Minister Patel’s calls for a market inquiry into high data costs, but identified such a market inquiry as part of his ‘14 point action plan’ to revive the South African economy.

Given that the three formal market inquiries which the SACC has commenced with to date have, only one (the LPG inquiry) has been finalized. Even the LPG inquiry took nearly three years to conclude. The private healthcare inquiry and the grocery retail inquiry which commenced in 2014 and 2015 respectively, still seem someway off from reaching any finality.

The length of time taken to conclude a market inquiry is, however, not the end of the matter from a timeline perspective. Following a market inquiry, recommendations must be made to Parliament. These recommendations may include legislative reforms or other remedies to address identified concerns with the structure of the market. Parliament may or may not adopt these recommended proposal.

Accordingly, it seems unlikely that from the date a market inquiry commences, that there will be any pro-competitive gains to the market within 5-7 years. That is assuming that the market presents anti-competitive features which can be remedies through legislative reform

While there appears to be consensus among most that data costs in South Africa are disproportionately high when compared to a number of other developing economies, the positive results envisaged to flow from a market inquiry is not only difficult to quantify, but will only be felt, if at all, a number of years down the line. Hardly a first step to revive the economy on a medium term outlook (let alone the short term).

Furthermore, and entwined with the SACC’s market inquiry into Data Costs, is that the Independent Communications Authority of South Africa (“ICASA”) decided to also conduct a market inquiry into the telecommunications sector, which includes focusing on the high costs of data.  ICASA has indicated that it will liaise with other regulatory bodies including the SACC.

It is not clear what level of collaboration will exist between the SACC and ICASA although one would hope that due to the resource intensive nature of market inquiries, there is minimal duplication between the two agencies – particularly as their objectives would appear identical.

As a concluding remark, absent evidence which convincingly supports the beneficial outcomes of market inquiries in South Africa, perhaps a key priority for the authorities is to conclude the current inquiries as expeditiously as possible and conduct an assessment of the benefits of market inquiries (particularly in the manner in which they are presently being conducted), before initiating a number of additional market inquiries.

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