The South African Competition Tribunal (“the Tribunal”) last week dismissed a complaint referred to it by the Competition Commission (“the Commission”) in 2009 which alleged that two rival cinemas, Primedia’s Ster-Kinekor Theatres and Avusa’s Nu-Metro Entertainment (Pty) Ltd, which operate in the market for the exhibition of films at the V&A Waterfront shopping complex in Cape Town, engaged in market allocation by agreeing not to screen the same film genres in contravention of section 4(1)(b)(ii) of the Competition Act.
The Commission initiated the complaint after Avusa applied for conditional immunity and provided evidence of the existence of a settlement agreement, which was made an order of court in 1998, between Nu Metro and Ster-Kinekor. In terms of the settlement agreement, Ster-Kinekor agreed not to exhibit any films identified as “commercial films” and Nu Metro would not exhibit any films identified as “art films” at the V&A waterfront.
The two companies first signed the ‘non-compete’ settlement agreement in May 1998, before section 4 of the Competition Act (which prohibits cartel conduct) became effective. Section 4 of the Competition Act only became effective as at 1 September 1999.
The Tribunal dismissed the complaint on the basis that the settlement agreement was concluded before the Competition Act came into operation and Ster-Kinekor and Nu Metro could only be found guilty of a contravention if there was evidence of actions or discussions between them directed at actually implementing the agreement after the Competition Act came into force.
In this regard cross-examination of witnesses revealed that while leniency applicant Nu Metro had attempted to invoke the settlement once after the Competition Act came into force, Ster-Kinekor employees “did not know about the… agreement, did not implement it, and had not implemented it before”, the Tribunal stated.
The Tribunal did not deal with Primedia’s other defence that no relief could be granted against Primedia because Primedia had only purchased Ster-Kinekor in 2008, so could not be liable for the actions of its predecessor.
John Oxenham, a South African competition lawyer, said that “the case confirms that the Competition Act does not apply retrospectively and some form of understanding or agreement (in essence a “new” agreement) needs to arise between the parties after the Act came into force for the conduct to be unlawful”. He believes that although the Tribunal mentioned that there needs to be some implementation of the agreement after the Competition Act came into force, what they are actually saying or should be saying is that it is not the implementation which is necessary but the arising of a “new” agreement between the parties which is essential.
Section 4(1)(b)(ii) of the Competition Act is a per se offence and an agreement does not need to be implemented in order to contravene the market allocation prohibitions.
Accordingly, the Tribunal has to some extent blurred the distinction between a ‘lack of implementation’ and the duty to distance oneself from a ‘prohibited agreement’.