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South African Competition Enforcement: a Juxtaposition.

AAT has previously reported on the South African “Consumer and Customer Protection and National Disaster Management Regulations and Directions” (Pricing Regulations) which came into force on 19 March 2020.

The Pricing Regulations provide the temporary framework within which excessive or unfair price increases will be assessed during the national state of disaster. Further, to give effect to the Pricing Regulations, the South African Competition Commission (SACC) and Competition Tribunal (Tribunal), both made specific provision to prioritize and prosecute matters arising out of the Pricing Regulations, on an urgent basis.

Following the publication of the Pricing Regulations, the SACC has reportedly received a myriad of complaints arising out of alleged breaches of the Pricing Regulations and, in order to effectively respond, has allocated its resources almost exclusively to dealing with such cases.

Notably, a large majority of these have not been referred to the Tribunal and, in some instance, the SACC has opted to, instead, resolve such allegations through direct and informal engagement with the relevant parties. In this regard, the SACC has taken the approach of liaising with industry players proactively, in order to greenlight pricing and other potentially anticompetitive conduct. This can be compared to the efforts of other international agencies who have undertaken to, on an expedited basis, consider and approve ‘waiver requests’. While firms may take comfort in the fact that the SACC will not prosecute firms who have cooperated in this informal manner, balancing cooperation with the right against self-incrimination may be a risky exercise for firms, particularly where such engagement takes place informally, without the advice of counsel.

Even so, there can be little doubt that the SACC, like its international counterparts, are wearing two hats, presenting firms with temporary but valuable measures to successfully navigate the uncertainty of a national state of disaster. The various exemptions published in terms of the Competition Act is a further such example.

In wearing the hat of enforcement, the SACC has concluded various settlements by way of consent orders, with small independent retailers and pharmacies emanating from the Pricing Regulations.

The most notable of these include a consent order, reached with face mask and protective gear distributor, Matus, following an investigation undertaken by the SACC which found that Matus increased the prices of dust masks (FFP1 and FFP2) for the relevant period, causing its gross profit margins to be markedly inflated. Matus, in the consent order, admitted to inflating its gross profit margins although it denied having contravened any laws (likely on the basis that it may not be dominant in any specific market, as required for a contravention of Section 8 of the Competition Act) and agreed to:

  • Pay an administrative penalty of R5.9 million;
  • Contribute R5 million to the Covid-19 Solidarity Fund;
  • Reduce its gross profit margin on dust masks to an acceptable level for the national disaster period (linked to an assurance that its gross profit margins for essential products will not be increased above that which was applicable on 16 February 2020).

The SACC has also, to date, referred and litigated two complaints before the Tribunal in terms of the Tribunal’s expedited Rules for Covid-19 Excessive Pricing Complaint Referrals (Tribunal Rules). These are:

Babelegi Workwear Overall Manufacturers & Industrial Supplies CC (Babelegi) – The SACC alleged that Babelegi increased the prices of facial masks for the period, earning a mark-up of over 500%, in contravention of the Pricing Regulations (and section 8 of the Competition Act).

Dis-Chem Pharmacies Limited (Dis-Chem) – The SACC alleged that Dis-Chem increased prices on surgical face masks (with increases between 43% and 261%) for the period February 2020 to March 2020, in contravention of the Pricing Regulations (and section 8 of the Competition Act).

The Dis-Chem matter has been interesting for a variety of reasons and is considered to be the ‘seminal case’ on prosecution in terms of the Pricing Regulations, with the SACC openly declaring that a “clear message must be sent that deters all other firms and Dis-Chem again from engaging in the same conduct”.

Dis-Chem is disputing its dominance in the relevant markets as well as the lawfulness of its decision to raise prices, arguing that it faced increased input costs and supply shortages which led to temporary price increases from all of its competitors and that Dis-Chem’s price adjustment was lower than that of other retailers.

From a procedural perspective, the matter has re-emphasized the need for compliance with the temporary Tribunal Rules, which provides for significantly reduced time periods, including that a respondent has 72 hours from service of the complaint referral in which to file a copy of their answering affidavit. Dis-Chem requested a one week extension for filing its answering affidavit, citing prejudice as a result of the complex nature of cases of excessive pricing and the severity of the penalty which may ultimately be imposed. The request was opposed by the SACC and Dis-Chem was forced to adhere to the shortened time period. Judgment is currently pending.

Competition agencies and advisors, globally, have stressed the pitfalls and advantaged of competition law during the state of disaster. A quick glance at enforcement statistics both now and following, for example the 2008 global financial crises, show that firms which have attempted to take advantage of consumers by flouting competition compliance during these times, have faced severe and endured consequences; economic and financial conditions cannot be used ex post to justify otherwise anticompetitive conduct.

Having said that, the proactive role played by the SACC also present opportunities for firms to utilize and take advantage of the temporary measures put in place by the SACC to green-light conduct which may otherwise be considered problematic.

The rules of the game have most certainly changed and, with it, there will be both winner and losers. A proactive approach to competition law compliance during these times, when perhaps firms are faced with more pressing concerns, may make all the difference.

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