South African Annual Competition Conference 2017: Law versus Policy – A “watch this space” moment

During the final week of August 2017, a number of prominent antitrust practitioners, economists, academics and politicians gathered in Johannesburg for the 11th Annual Competition Law, Economics & Policy Conference (Conference).

The Conference attracted a variety of presenters, both local and international, to grapple and stimulate debate around a number of highly topical issues including ‘big data’, the use of algorithms and the development and success of tech mammoths such as Google and Uber.

South African politicians also took to the stage, including both the Minister of Economic Development, Mr Ebrahim Patel, and the South African Deputy President, Mr Cyril Ramaphosa.

The key message imparted by these two prominent politicians is that more needs to be done to tackle “high concentrations” within the South African economy. A message which has become somewhat of a rhetoric from politicians of late.

Minister Patel again emphasised that legislative changes will soon be brought into force which will assist the competition authorities in de-concentrating the economy and prosecuting alleged abuse of dominance cases in South Africa. It not yet clear whether Minister Patel intends introducing the “complex monopoly” provisions (which have already been passed by the legislature in 2009 but have not yet been brought into force) overnight in a similar manner as the criminal liability provisions were brought into effect or whether there are additional legislative amendments on its way which will provide the Competition Agencies with greater powers to “break up dominant firms”.

The Deputy President reaffirmed Minister Patel’s sentiment and stated that “the way the economy was structured in the past is a problem, which must be rectified through policy” and further added that “competition policy in South Africa cannot be limited merely to the promotion of market efficiency. It must be an instrument to effect fundamental economic and social change” (Our emphasis). Mr Ramaphosa did not, however, proffer any substantive recommendations on how best this should be achieved.

Both Minister Patel as well as Deputy President Ramaphosa spoke with high regard of the efforts of US president Theodore Roosevelt in deconcentrating the US economy decades ago through the so called “no-fault divorce” in terms of which US antitrust regulators could break up dominant companies in a sector whose structure they deemed anticompetitive. The Commissioner of the South African Competition Commission, Tembinkosi Bonakele further told a forum at the Gordon Institute of Business Science (GIBS) that the proposed amendments currently before Cabinet, included granting the Commission the power to apply measures to address concentrations and not to merely make recommendations once evidence of market concentration had been found.

Whatever proposals are ultimately brought to the table to tackle high levels of concentrations would need to take into account the fact that most companies achieve their dominance through efficiencies, innovation and risk taking in the first place which in turn has a positive impact on the economy.

Arguably, effective utilisation of state resources, which is often hampered by corruption and poor administration are far more detrimental to the economy and welfare of South Africans as a whole. South Africa Airways (SAA) is a case at hand. Despite having been found to have engaged in abuse of dominance practices (which led to both the imposition of an administrative penalty and civil follow-on damages). SAA’s current lack of efficiency does not stem from its dominance in the market, but is rather a result of poor leadership and administrative capabilities.

Without any concrete proposals or draft legislative provisions on the table for public comment as of yet, a key issue remains whether the envisaged proposals currently being considered will materially address the socio-economic challenges which South Africa faces and whether the resources dedicated to this cause could be better utilised elsewhere.

Moving to private enforcement, a key issue discussed during the Conference is the importance of civil damages (and collective redress) and its role within the sphere of competition law in South Africa. In this regard, Oxenham, Currie and Van der Merwe’s paper titled “Follow On Damages for Anticompetitive Conduct – A Need for Legislative Intervention?” is particularly enlightening.

In their Paper, the authors explore not only the framework in which civil follow on damages claims in South Africa should be assessed, but also explore some of the key practical issues which plaintiffs, defendants and the Courts are likely to grapple with in future cases. In particular, the Paper highlights key challenges such as: joint and several liability; the apportionment of damages between defendants; prescription and the timing of instituting complaints; the availability of indirect purchaser complaints; and access to information which will invariably shape the strategy and efficiency of a plaintiff’s damages case.

Furthermore, with follow on damages claims and class action litigation a novel but very real feature of South African law, perhaps now is the time that the South African policy makers and legislature should give more thought to providing guidance on key aspects relating to follow on civil redress.

Alleviating the challenges which plaintiffs are likely to face in instituting a damages claim may go further in achieving the very goals which Minister Patel and Deputy President Ramaphosa seek to achieve. The difficulty for the legislature, however, will be in finding an appropriate balance between the various competing interests – such as ensuring that any reform in relation to follow on redress does not deter or prejudice the Competition Commission leniency policy nor deter respondents from seeking to conclude expeditious settlements with the Commission.

Finally, ensuring substantive and inclusive public debate on the proposed policy reforms may go a long way in ensuring that whatever legislative intervention is pursued, the authorities will not be hamstrung by challenges to the legality of the legislative provisions as has been the case with previous amendments to the Competition Act.

 

 

 

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