By Charl van der Merwe
On 21 January 2019, the South African Competition Tribunal (Tribunal), ruled in favour of the South African Competition Commission (SACC) who prosecuted Computicket (Pty) Ltd. (Computicket) for abuse of dominance in contravention of the Competition Act.
The Tribunal ruled that Computicket had abused its dominance, in contravention of section 8(d)(i) of the Competition Act (which prohibits dominant entities from inducing customer or suppliers not to deal with competitors) by engaging in exclusionary conduct and fined the company R20 million (approximately US$1.44 million), payable within 60 days.
In terms of section 8(d)(i) of the Competition Act, exclusionary conduct is prohibited unless the dominant firm can show that the anti-competitive effect of the exclusionary conduct is outweighed by technological, efficiency or other pro-competitive gains.
The SACC referred the complaint to the Tribunal in April 2010 after its investigation found that Computicket had entered into long term exclusive agreements with customers for the period 2005 to 2010 (immediately after being acquired by a large South African retailer, Shoprite), thereby excluding new entrants from entering the market. At the hearing of the matter, the SACC produced evidence that Computicket entered into these agreements shortly after being acquired and that employees vigorously enforced the exclusive agreements, particularly when new entrants sought to enter the market.
Computicket denied the allegations, arguing that its long term exclusive contracts had no anti-competitive effects as it was offering a superior service and the exclusive contracts were necessary to safeguard against reputational risks.
The Tribunal rejected the argument on the basis that:
- Computicket had a near monopoly in the market;
- there was limited market entry during the relevant period which coincided with the introduction of the longer term exclusivity contracts; and
- no other theory was put forward as to why entry into the market was so limited and ineffectual.
The Tribunal, however, limited the period of the conduct to that period for which the SACC managed to produce conclusive evidence of anti-competitive effects.
The Tribunal found that while some of the anti-competitive effects were inconclusive, the evidence suggesting that the foreclosure of the market to competition during the period (coupled with the cumulative effect of the other inconclusive theories) is sufficient to prove an anti-competitive effect on a balance of probabilities.
According to John Oxenham, director at Primerio, the Tribunal’s decision followed largely on the same principles which were set out in the South African Airways case some years earlier. In terms of principles set out in SAA, the SACC was required to prove that the conduct of a dominate firm constitutes an exclusionary act as defined in section 8(1)(d) and, if so, that the exclusionary act has an anti-competitive effect. In other words, whether the conduct resulted in harm to consumer welfare or was “substantial or significant” in that it led to the foreclosing of market rivals. It is then for the respondent to justify its conduct based on a rule of reason analysis.
Competition lawyer, Michael-James Currie says that although there have been a limited number of abuse of dominance cases in South Africa which have successfully been prosecuted, companies with high market shares should take particular cognizance of the Tribunal’s decision. Tackling abuse of dominance cases is very much on the SACC’s radar and the Competition Amendment Bill (expected to be introduced in early 2019) will assist the SACC in prosecuting abuse of dominance cases by introducing thresholds divorced of competition or consumer welfare standards and placing a reverse onus on respondents to justify its conduct (particularly in relation to the excessive pricing, price discrimination and buyer power prohibitions).
Currie says that over and above the administrative penalty, companies found to have contravened section 8 of the Act are potentially at risk from a civil liability perspective. In this regard, both Currie and Oxenham point to the SAA case which resulted in Comair and Nationwide successfully claiming damages in the first follow-on damages case in South Africa for abuse of dominance conduct.
It appears that Computicket will take the Tribunal’s decision on appeal to the Competition Appeal Court.