South Africa: Abuse of Dominance Investigations– Out with the Old, In with the New

The South African Competition Commission (SACC) recently announced that it would withdraw its complaint of abuse of dominance levelled against two of the four pharmaceutical companies who had allegedly engaged in excessive pricing in relation to certain cancer medications in South Africa.

The companies who were implicated in the SACC’s investigation were Roche and Genentech, Pfizer, Equity and Aspen.

The SACC indicated that it had withdrawn its complaint in respect of Aspen and Equity as the relevant products only generated a small portion of revenue in South Africa or in the case of Equity, the relevant product is not registered in South Africa and was only imported once into South Africa from Germany (which was the basis for the high price charged in South Africa). The complaint against Roche and Pfizer will, according to the SACC, continue.

In the same week, the SACC announced that it has launched an abuse of dominance investigation against Vodacom for engaging in exclusionary conduct. This investigation by the SACC is somewhat puzzling as it appears from the SACC’s media release that the reason why Vodacom is being investigated is on the basis that Vodacom had won a tender issued by the National Treasury to become the sole provider of mobile telecommunication services to the government.

The SACC alleges that previously, government departments could purchase mobile telecommunication services from any mobile network operator, but following the award of the tender to Vodacom, other departments, including state owned entities and municipalities, will be incentivised to adopt new contracts with Vodacom. In other words, Vodacom would either be precluding government departments or inducing them not to deal with Vodacom’s competitors in contravention of Section 8 of the Competition Act.

In order to sustain an exclusionary conduct complaint, it must be demonstrated that the alleged conduct was in fact anti-competitive and cannot be outweighed by any pro-competitive or other efficiency justifications.

Importantly, the SACC has not indicated that the actual tender process in any way distorted a competitive bid being submitted by Vodacom.

Accordingly, by being awarded the tender, particularly a public tender issued by the National Treasury, one would have anticipated that this would be indicative that Vodacom’s bid was the most competitive offering – why else sign the agreement in the first place. It could hardly be the case that the National Treasury was ‘forced’ into accepting Vodacom’s terms and if there was an irregularity with the tender process, then why lodge a complaint with the Competition Authorities. This would be a public procurement issue.

Accordingly, the message which seems to be imparted from the SACC’s decision to investigate Vodacom is that dominant firms should be particularly cautious about tendering for a particular bid – they may just win.

Although the investigation has only recently been announced by the SACC, Vodacom’s share price dropped 8% following news of the investigation. Regardless, of whether the complaint levelled against Vodacom has any merit, Vodacom is already paying a reputational price which in today’s day and age, can be significantly costly.

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