The New South African Competition Amendment Bill – What this Means for Business

By Michael-James Currie

Background

On 1 December 2017, the Minister of Economic Development (under whose auspices the South African competition authorities fall), Ebrahim Patel, published draft amendments to the South African Competition Act [PDF], 89 of 1998 (Act) for public comment.

The proposed amendments (Amendments) to the Act, which principally aim to address concentration in the market, go well beyond pure competition issues and bestow a significant public-interest mandate on the competition authorities.

In this regard, Minister Patel has remarked that the old, i.e., current, Act “was focused mainly on the conduct of market participants rather than the structure of markets, and while this was part of industrial policy, there was room for competition legislation as well”.

south_africaPatel’s influence in advancing his industrial-policy objectives through the utilisation of the public-interest provisions in merger control are well documented. AAT contributors have written about the increasing trend by the competition authorities in merger control to impose public-interest conditions that go well beyond merger specificity – often justified on the basis of the Act’s preamble which, inter alia, seeks to promote a more inclusive economy.  The following extracts from the introduction to the Amendments indicate a similar, if not more expansive, role for public interest considerations in competition law enforcement:

“…the explicit reference to these structural and transformative objectives in the Act clearly  indicates that the legislature intended that competition policy should be broadly framed, embracing both traditional competition issues, as well as these explicit transformative public interest goals”.

The draft Bill focuses on creating and enhancing the substantive provisions of the Act aimed at addressing two key structural challenges in the South African economy: concentration and the racially-skewed spread of ownership of firms in the economy.

The role of public interest provisions in merger control have often been criticised, predominantly on the basis that once the agencies move away from competition issues and merger specificity and seek conditions that go beyond that which is strictly necessary to remedy any potential negative effects, one moves away from an objective standard by which to assess mergers. This leads to a negative impact on costs, timing and certainty – essential factors for potential investors considering entering or expanding into a market.

As John Oxenham, director of Pr1merio states, “from a policy perspective it is apparent that consumer-welfare tests have been frustrated by uncertainty”. In this regard, the South African authorities initially adopted a position in terms of which competition law played a primary role, with public-interest considerations taking second place.  Largely owing to Minister Patel’s intervention, the agencies have recently taken a more direct approach to public-interest considerations and have effectively elevated the role of public-interest considerations to the same level as pure competition matters – particularly in relation to merger control (although we have seen a similar influence of public-interest considerations in, inter alia, market inquiries and more recently in the publishing of industry Codes of Conduct, e.g., in the automotive aftermarkets industry).

Minister Patel speaks

Minister Patel speaks

The current amendments, however, risk elevating public-interest provisions above those of competition issues. The broad remedies and powers which the competition agencies may impose absent any evidence of anti-competitive behaviour are indicative of the competition agencies moving into an entirely new ‘world of enforcement’ in what could very likely be a significant ‘over-correction’ on the part of Minister Patel, at the cost of certainty and the likely deleterious impact on investment.

The proposed Amendments, which we unpack below, seem to elevate industrial policies above competition related objectives thereby introducing a significant amount of discretion on behalf of the agencies. Importantly, the Amendments are a clear departure from the general internationally accepted view that that ‘being big isn’t bad’, but competition law is rather about how you conduct yourself in the market place.

The Proposed Amendments

The Amendments identify five key objectives namely:

(i) The provisions of the Competition Act relating to prohibited practices and mergers must be strengthened.

(ii) Special attention must be given to the impact of anti-competitive conduct on small businesses and firms owned by historically disadvantaged persons.

(iii) The provisions relating to market inquiries must be strengthened so that their remedial actions effectively address market features and conduct that prevents, restricts or distorts competition in the relevant markets.

(iv) It is necessary to promote the alignment of competition-related processes and decisions with other public policies, programmes and interests.

(v) The administrative efficacy of the competition regulatory authorities and their processes must be enhanced.

At the outset, it may be worth noting that the Amendments now cater for the imposition of an administrative penalty for all contraventions of the Act (previously, only cartel conduct, resale price maintenance and certain abuse of dominance conduct attracted an administrative penalty for a first-time offence).

Secondly, the Amendments envisage that an administrative penalty may be imposed on any firm which forms part of a single economic entity (in an effort to preclude firms from setting up corporate structures to avoid liability).

We summarise below the key proposed Amendments to the Competition Act.

Abuse-of-Dominance Provisions

Excessive pricing

  • The evidentiary onus will now be on the respondent to counter the Competition Commission’s (Commission) prima facie case of excessive pricing against it.
  • The removal of the current requirement that an “excessive price” must be shown to be to the “detriment of consumers” in order to sustain a complaint.
  • An obligation on the Commission to publish guidelines to determine what constitutes an “excessive price”.

Predatory Pricing

  • The introduction of a standard which benchmarks against the respondents own “cost benchmarking” as opposed to the utilisation of more objective standards tests.
  • The benchmarking now includes reference to “average avoidable costs” or “long run average incremental costs” (previously the Act’s only tests were marginal costs and average variable costs).

General Exclusionary Conduct

  • The current general exclusionary conduct provision, Section 8(c), will be replaced by an open list of commonly accepted forms of exclusionary conduct as identified in Section 8(d).
  • The definition of exclusionary conduct will include not only “barriers to entry and expansion within a market, but also to participation in a market”.
  • The additional forms of abusive conduct will be added to Section 8(d):
    • prevent unreasonable conditions unrelated to the object of a contract being placed on the seller of goods or services”;
    • Section 8(1)(d)(vii) is inserted to include the practice of engaging in a margin squeeze as a possible abuse of dominance;
    • Section (1)(d)(viii) is introduced to protect suppliers to dominant firms from being required, through the abuse of dominance, to sell their goods or services at excessively low prices. This addresses the problem of monopsonies, namely when a customer enjoys significant buyer power over its suppliers”.

Price Discrimination

  • The Amendment will look to expand Section 9 of the Act to prohibit price discrimination by a dominant firm against its suppliers.
  • An onus of proof has been shifted on to the respondent to demonstrate that any price discrimination does not result in a substantial lessening of competition.

Merger-Control Provisions

  • Introduction of certain mandatory disclosures relating, in particular, to that of cross-shareholding or directorship between the merging parties and other third parties.
  • Introduction of provisions which essentially allow the competition authorities to treat a number of smaller transactions (which fell below the merger thresholds), which took place within three years, as a single merger on the date of the latest transaction.
  • Introduction of additional public-interest grounds which must be taken into account when assessing the effects of a merger. These relate to “ownership, control and the support of small businesses and firms owned or controlled by historically disadvantaged persons”.

Market Inquiries

  • Granting the Commission powers to make orders or impose remedies (including forced divestiture recommendations which must be approved by the Tribunal) following the conclusion of a market inquiry (previously the Commission was only empowered to make recommendations to Parliament).
  • The introduction of a new competition test for market inquiries, namely whether any feature or combination of features in a market that prevents, restricts or distorts competition in that market constitutes an “adverse effect” (a significant departure from the traditional “substantial lessening of competition” test).
  • Focussed market inquiries are envisaged to replace the “Complex Monopoly” provisions which were promulgated in 2009 but not yet brought into effect.

Additional Amendments

  • Empowering the Commission to grant leniency to any firm.
  • This is a departure from the current leniency policy, under which the Commission is only permitted to grant leniency to the ‘first through the door’.

What does this all mean going forward?

The above proposed amendments are not exhaustive. In addition to above, it is apparent that Minister Patel envisages utilising the competition agencies and Act as a “one-stop-shop” in order to address not only competition issues but facilitate increased transformation within the industry and to promote a number of additional socio-economic objectives (i.e., to bring industrial policies within the remit of the competition agencies).

In a move which would may undermine the independence and impartiality of the competition agencies, the Amendment also intends providing the responsible “Minister with more effective means of participating in competition-related inquiries, investigations and adjudicative processes”.

The amendments also strengthen the available interventions that will be undertaken to redress the specific challenges posed by concentration and untransformed ownership”.

Competition-law observers interviewed by AAT point out that the principle of separation of powers is a fundamental cornerstone of the South African constitutional democracy and is paramount in ensuring that there is an appropriate ‘checks and balances’ system in place. It is for this reason that the judiciary (which in this context includes the competition agencies) must remain independent, impartial and act without fear or favour (as mandated in terms of the Act).

The increased interventionist role which the executive is envisaged to play, by way of the Amendments, in the context of competition law enforcement raises particular concerns in this regard.  Furthermore, the increased role of public-interest considerations effectively confers on the competition agencies the responsibility of determining the relevant ambit, scope and enforcement of socio-economic objectives. These are broad, subjective and may be vastly different depending on whether one is assessing these non-competition objectives in the short or long term.

Any uncertainty regarding the relevant factors which the competition authorities ought to take into account or whose views the authorities will be prepared to afford the most weight too, risks trust being lost in the objectivity and impartiality of the enforcement agencies. This will have a direct negative impact on the Government’s objective in selling South Africa as an investor friendly environment.

In addition, as Primerio attorney and competition counsel Andreas Stargard notes, the “future role played by the SACC’s market inquiries” is arguably open to significant abuse, as “the Competition Commission has broad discretion to impose robust remedies, even absent any evidence of a substantial lessening of competition.”

  • Mr. Stargard notes that the draft Amendment Bill, in its own words in section 43D (clause 21) “places a duty on the Commission to remedy structural features identified as having an adverse effect on competition in a market, including the use of divestiture orders. It also requires the Commission to record its reasons for the identified remedy. … These amendments empower the Commission to tailor new remedies demanded by the findings of the market inquiry. These remedies can be creative and flexible, constrained only by the requirements that they address the adverse effect on competition established by the market inquiry, and are reasonable and practicable.”
Andreas Stargard

Andreas Stargard

Although the Amendments recognise that concentration in of itself is not in all circumstances to be construed as an a priori negative, the lack of a clear and objective set of criteria together with the lower threshold (i.e., “adverse effect”) which must be met before the competition authorities may impose far-reaching remedies, coupled with the interventionist role which the executive may play (particularly in relation to market inquiries), may have a number of deterrent effects on both competition and investment.

Mr. Stargard notes in this regard that the “approach taken by the new draft legislation may in fact stifle innovation, growth, and an appetite for commercial expansion, thereby counteracting the express goals listed in its preamble:  Firms that are currently sitting at a market share of around 30% for instance may not be incentivised to obtain any greater accretive share for fear of being construed as holding a dominant market position, once the 35% threshold is crossed“.

The objectives to facilitate a spread of ownership is not a novel objective of the post-Apartheid government and a number of pieces of legislation and policies have been introduced in order to facilitate the entry of small previously disadvantaged players into the market through agencies generally better equipped to deal with this. These policies, in general, have arguably not led to the government’s envisaged benefits. There may be a number of reasons for this, but the new Amendments do not seek to address the previous failures or identify why various other initiatives and pieces of legislation such as the Black Economic Empowerment (BEE) legislation has not worked (to the extent envisaged by Government). Furthermore, the Tribunal summed up this potential conflict neatly in the following extract in the Distillers case:

Thus the public interest asserted pulls us in opposing directions. Where there are other appropriate legislative instruments to redress the public interest, we must be cognisant of them in determining what is left for us to do before we can consider whether the residual public interest, that is that part of the public interest not susceptible to or better able to be dealt with under another law, is substantial.”

Perhaps directing the substantial amount of tax payers’ money away from a certain dominant state-owned Airline – which has been plagued with maladministration – and rather use those funds to invest in small businesses will be a better solution to grow the economy and spread ownership to previously disadvantaged groups than potentially prejudicing dominant firms which are in fact efficient.

Furthermore, ordering divestitures requires that there be a suitable third party who could effectively take up the divested business and impose a competitive constraint on the dominant entity. It seems inevitable that based on the proposed Amendments the competition authorities will be placed in the invidious position of considering a divestiture to an entity which may not yet have proven any successful track record. The Amendments do not provide guidance for this and although the competition authorities have the necessary skills and resources to assess whether conduct has an anti-competitive effect on the market, it is less clear whether the authorities have the necessary skills to properly identify a suitable third party acquirer of a divested business.

In addition and importantly, promoting competition within the market achieves public interest objectives. Likewise, anything which undermines competition in the market will have a negative impact on the public interest considerations.

John Oxenham

John Oxenham

As John Oxenham and Patrick Smith have argued elsewhere, “competition drives a more efficient allocation of resources, resulting in lower prices and better quality products for customers. Lower prices typically result in an expansion of output. Output expansion, combined with the effect of lower prices in respect of one good or service frees up resources to be spent in other areas of the economy. The result is likely to be higher output and, most importantly for emerging economies, employment”.

While it is true that ordinarily, a decrease in concentration and market power should result in an increase in employment we have not seen a comprehensive assessment of the negative costs associated with pursuing public interest objectives. Any weakening of a pure competition test must imply some costs in terms of lost efficiency, or less competitive outcome, which is justified based on a party’s perspective of a particular public interest factor. That loss in efficiency and less competitive outcome is very likely to have negative consequences for consumers, growth, and employment. Accordingly, the pursuit of “public-interest factors” might have some component of a loss to the public interest itself. We have not seen that loss in efficiency (and resultant harm to the public interest, as comprehensively understood) meaningfully acknowledged in the proposed Amendments.

A further risk to the broad and open ended role which public interest considerations are likely to play in competition law matters should the Amendments be passed is a significant risk of interventionism by third parties (in particular, competitors, Trade Unions and Government) who may look to utilise the Act to simply to harass competitors rather than pursue legitimate pro-competition objectives. The competition authorities will need to be extra mindful of the delays, costs and uncertainty which opportunistic intervention may lead to.

Although there are certain aspects of the Amendments which are welcomed, such as limiting the timeline of market inquiries, from a policy perspective the Amendments appear to go far beyond consumer protection issues in an effort to address certain socio-economic disparities in the South African economy, and may, in fact very likely hinder the development of the economy.

Based on the objectives which underpin the Amendments, it appears as if the Department of Economic Development is focused on dividing the existing ‘economic pie’ rather than on growing it for the benefit of all South Africans.

From a competition law enforcement perspective, however, firms conducting business in South Africa are likely to see a significant shake-up should the Amendments be brought into effect as a number of markets have been identified as highly concentrated (including, Communication Energy, Financial Services, Food and agro-processing, Infrastructure and construction, Intermediate industrial products, Mining, Pharmaceuticals and Transport).

[To contact any of the contributors to this article, or should you require any further information regarding the Amendment Bill, you are welcome to contact the AAT editors at editor@africanantitrust.com]

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Competition forum highlights antitrust enforcement, international cooperation

South Africa signs cooperation agreements with Russia and Kenya

Leading government officials presented their respective countries’ accomplishments in the antitrust arena at the 10th annual Competition Law, Economics & Policy Conference in Cape Town yesterday.

south_africaThe attendees ranged from the SA Minister of Economic Development, Ebrahim Patel, and the Commissioner of the Competition Commission, Tembinkosi Bonakele, to their Russian and Kenyan counterparts.  Kenya Competition Authority director general Francis Kariuki emphasised the officials’ desire to remove barriers to trade.  He was quoted as saying he looked forward to exchanging information on cross-border cartels, which affect both the South African and Kenyan economies: tsar_200“We have regional economic communities and regional trade. There are some infractions in South Africa which are affecting Kenya and vice versa. We want to join hands to do market enquiries and do research. This will inform our governments when they come up with policies.”

On the inside-BRICS front, the SA Commission signed an MoU with Russia, adding to Russia’s “rich and diverse bilateral agreements portfolio.”  The MoU is described as focussing particularly on pharmaceutical and automotive sectors, in which pending or future sectoral inquiries would see information-sharing between the Federal Antimonopoly Service (FAS) of Russia and the SACC, according to the FAS deputy chief Andrey Tsarikovskiy.

Patel talksMister Patel’s keynote address showed the glass half-full and half-empty, focussing in part on the need to “scale” the South African agency activity up to the level of the “success story” of domestic competition enforcement and its large caseload (quoting 133 new cartel cases initiated in the past year).

Never one to omit politicisation, Mr. Patel noted the perceived parallels he saw between South African history of concentrating economic power in the hands of a minority, raising indirectly the issue of public-interest concessions made in antitrust investigations, including M&A matters.  Mr. Patel clearly sees the SACC’s role as including a reduction in economic inequality among the populace, rather than being a neutral competition enforcer guided solely by internationally recognised legal antitrust & economic principles.  Both he and Commissioner Bonakele drew parallels between their anti-cartel enforcement and a purported reduction in the SA poverty rate of a whopping four tenths of a percent.

 

 

Cooperation, handshakes & MoUs: all the rage in African antitrust?

AAT the big picture

Significant Strides made to Promote Harmonisation across African Competition Agencies

By AAT Senior Contributor, Michael-James Currie.

In the past 12 months there has been a steady drive by competition law agencies in Africa to promote harmonisation between the respective jurisdictions.

The African regional competition authority, the COMESA Competition Commission (CCC), has entered into memorandum of understandings with a number of its nineteen member states. On 5 June 2016, it was announced that the CCC has further concluded MoU’s with the Swaziland Competition Commission as well as the Fair Trade Commission of the Seychelles.

On 7 May 2016, it was announced that nine members of the Southern African Development Community (SADC) have also entered into and MoU. These member states include South Africa, Malawi, Botswana, Swaziland, Seychelles, Mozambique, Namibia, Tanzania and Zambia.

The SADC MoU was based on the 2009 SADC Declaration on Regional Cooperation and Consumer Policies.

SADC MoUAccording to the South African Competition Commissioner, Mr Tembinkosi Bonakele, the MoU creates a framework for cooperation enforcement within the SADC region.  “The MoU provides a framework for cooperation in competition enforcement within the SADC region and we are delighted to be part of this historic initiative,” said Bonakele.

Interestingly, although a number of the signatories to SADC MoU are not member states of COMESA (that is, South Africa and Namibia, who in turn, have a MoU between their respective competition authorities), Swaziland, Malawi and the Seychelles have existing MoU’s with the COMESA Competition Commission. Says Andreas Stargard, a competition practitioner with Primerio Ltd., “it will be interesting to see, first, whether there may be conflicts that arise out of the divergent patchwork of cooperation MoUs, and second, to what extent the South African Competition Authorities, for example, could indirectly benefit from the broader cooperation amongst the various jurisdiction and regional authorities.”

Part of the objectives of the MoUs to date has largely been to facilitate an advocacy role. However, from a practical perspective, the SADC MoU envisages broader information exchanges and coordination of investigations.

While the MoU’s are a positive stride in achieving cross-border harmonisation, it remains to be seen to what extent the collaboration will assist the respective antitrust agencies in detecting and prosecuting cross border anticompetitive conduct.

There may be a number of practical and legal hurdles which may provide challenges to the effective collaboration envisaged. The introduction of criminal liability for cartel conduct in South Africa, for example, may provide challenges as to how various agencies obtain and share evidence.

Antitrust in the Digital Economy: Fighting Inequality?

AAT the big picture

HOW CAN COMPETITION LAW ENFORCEMENT IN THE DIGITAL ECONOMY HELP IN THE FIGHT AGAINST POVERTY?

By DWA co-founder and visiting AAT author, Amine Mansour* (re-published courtesy of Developing World Antitrust’s editors)

When talking about competition law and poverty alleviation, we may intuitively think about markets involving essential needs. The rise of new sectors may however prompt competition authorities to turn their attention away from these markets. One of those emerging sectors is the digital economy sector. This triggers the question of whether the latter should be a top priority in competition authorities’ agenda. The answer remains unclear and depends mainly on the potential value added to consumers in general and the poor in particular[1].

Should competition authorities in developing countries focus on digital markets?

Obviously, access to computer and technology is not a source of poverty stricto sensu. In the absence of basic needs, strategies focusing on digital sectors may prove meaningless. In practice, the last thing people living in extreme poverty will think about is gaining digital skills. Their immediate needs are embodied in markets offering goods and services which are basic necessities. The approach put forward by several Competition authorities in developing countries corroborates this view. For instance, in South Africa, digital markets are not seen as a top priority. Instead, the South African competition authority focuses on food and agro-processing, infrastructure and construction, banking and intermediate industrial products.

There are however compelling arguments to be made against such position. Most importantly, although access to technology and computers is not a source of poverty, such an access can be a solution to the poverty problem. In fact, closing the digital gap by providing digital skills and making access to technology and Internet easier can help the low income population when acting either as entrepreneurs or consumers. In both cases competition law can play a decisive role.

The low income population acting as consumers

First, when acting as consumers, people with low income can enjoy the benefits of new technology-based entrant. Thanks to lower costs of operation, lower barriers to entry and (almost) infinite buyers, these new operators have changed the competitive landscape by aggressively competing against traditional companies. These features have helped them not only extending existing products and services to low-income consumers but also making new ones available for them. Better yet, in some cases increased competition coming from technology-based companies motivates traditional business forms to adapt their offer to low-income consumers so as to face this new competition and remedy shrinking revenues. Perhaps, the most noteworthy aspect of all these evolutions, is that these new entrants have, in some instances, been able to challenge incumbents’ position by driving prices downward to levels unattainable by traditional companies without scarifying their profitability.

A shining example of all this dynamic is the possibility for low-income consumers to engage, thanks to some mobile companies, in financial transaction without the need to pass through the traditional stationary banking infrastructure. For instance, in Kenya, M-PESA a mobile money transfer service that has over 22 million subscribers[2] and around 40,000 agents (around 2600 Commercial bank branches)[3] changed the life of million of citizens. The service enables clients to deposit cash into their M-PESA accounts, send or transfer money to any other mobile phone user, withdraw cash and complete other financial transactions. A farmer in a remote area in Kenya can send or receive money by simply using his mobile phone. In this way, M-PESA can act as a substitute to personal bank accounts. This experience shows how the digital economy helps overcoming the prohibitive costs of reaching low-income customers and thus raising living standards.

On that basis, we can easily imagine the counter-argument incumbent companies might put forward. In this regard, unfair competition and the need for regulation to preserve policy objectives are often in the forefront. However, there is a great risk that these arguments are simply used to restrict market entry and impede competition from those new players.

In fact, this kind of arguments do not always reflect market reality. For example, in some remote geographic areas, traditional companies and the new ones based on the digital/internet space do not even compete directly against each other. Accordingly, regulation intended to protect policy goals has no role to play given that the affected consumers are out of the reach of the traditional business. In the M-PESA example, it may be possible to argue that any operator engaging in financial transactions should observe the regulatory restrictions that apply to the banking sector in order to ensure that policy objectives such as the stability of the banking system or the protection of consumer savings are preserved. However, applying such a reasoning will leave a large part of consumers with no alternative given the absence of a banking infrastructure in remote areas. The unfair competition and regulation arguments may only hold in cases where consumers are offered alternatives capable of providing an equivalent service.

This shows the need to proceed cautiously by favoring an evidence-based approach to the ex-post use of the regulation argument by incumbent operators. This is however only one of different facets of the interaction between the competitive impact of companies based on the internet-space, the regulatory framework and the repercussions for people with low income[4].

The low income population acting as entrepreneurs

Second, the focus on digital markets as way to alleviate poverty is further justified when low-income people act as entrepreneurs. In fact, digital markets are distinguished from basic good markets in that they may act as an empowering instrument that encourages entrepreneurship.

More precisely, the digitalization of the economy results in an improved access to market information which in turn may benefit entrepreneurs especially the poor whether they intervene in the same market or in a different one. Practice is replete with cases where, for instance, a downstream firm heavily relies for its production/operation on services or products offered by an upstream company operating in a digital market. Similarly, in a traditional and somewhat caricatural way, a small-scale farmer may use VOIP calls to obtain market information or directly contact buyers suppressing the need for a middleman.

However, we can well imagine the disastrous consequences for these small-scale farmers or the downstream firm if mobile operators decide to block access to internet telephony services such as Skype or WhatsApp based on cheap phone calls using VOIP (this is what actually happened in Morocco). In such a case, the digitalization of the economy has clearly contributed to greatly lowering the costs of communication and distribution. However, low income entrepreneurs are prevented from benefiting of these low costs, which are a key input to be able to compete in the market.

The major difficulty here lies in the fact that, when low income people act as entrepreneurs, it is likely that they organize their activities in small structures. This result in relationships and structures favorable to the emergence of exploitative abuses. Keeping digital markets clear from obstructing anticompetitive practices is thus indispensable to ensure that small existing or potential competitors are not prevented from competing. This might not be easily achieved given that competition authorities’ focus is sometimes more on high profile cases.

*Co-editor, Developing World Antitrust

[1] Intervention may also be justified by the institutional significance argument. This significance lies in the fact that those markets are growing ones and challenging the common ways of both doing business and applying competition rules which in turn make it crucial for authorities to intervene by drawing the lines that ensure the right conditions for those market to grow and develop.

[2] http://www.safaricom.co.ke/about-us/about-safaricom

[3] http://www.safaricom.co.ke/personal/m-pesa/get-started-with-m-pesa/m-pesa-agents

[4] For instance, it possible to think of the same problem from an ex-ante point of view highlighting incumbent firms’ efforts to block any re-examination of the regulatory standards that apply to the concerned sector (no relaxation of the quantitative and qualitative restrictions). This aspect has more to do with the advocacy function of competition authorities.

More Criminal Anti-Cartel Enforcement in Africa? Some Thoughts on Nigeria

By AAT guest author, Osayomwanbor Bob Enofe, Sutherland School of Law Doctoral Scholar, UCD.

We recently wrote about the landmark enactment of the new South African competition legislation that makes hard-core price-fixing a criminal offence, subjecting cartelists to up to 10 years imprisonment.  Nigeria is usually not on the radar of antitrust practitioners, however, and certainly not in the criminal sense, either.  As regular readers of AAT know, the Republic of Nigeria has featured occasionally in our posts despite not having a functioning antitrust regime, yet.  As editor and Pr1merio director Andreas Stargard wrote in an article entitled “Nigerian antitrust?“, scholars and political activists alike have promoted the idea of establishing an antitrust regime in West Africa’s dominant economy: ‘Today, AfricanAntitrust adds its voice to the steady, though infrequent, discussion surrounding the possibility of a Nigerian competition-law regime.  In our opinion, it is not a question of “if” but “when”, and perhaps more importantly, “how“?’

Today, contributing author Bob Enofe adds his voice to the mix, and we are publishing one of his articles that originally appeared on Robert Connolly’s cartel capers blog.

Criminal Antitrust in Nigeria?

nigeriaThe Federal Republic of Nigeria is currently in the process of enacting a competition law, including to criminalise cartel activity amongst competitors. While such is in line with moves made by various other jurisdictions and theories of ‘rational actor’, sanction and deterrence, on ground realities suggest that criminalisation where transplanted might be seriously flawed.

From the late 1990s, and particularly in the year 2000, the Federal Government of Nigeria commenced moves to enact a Competition Law. Under such law, business cartel activity defined as agreements between competitors, aimed at distorting the process of competition and generating monopolistic rents, would be criminalised. The ‘Federal Competition Bill, 2002’, an executive bill drafted by the Nigerian Bureau of Public Enterprises (BPE), was titled: “a Bill for an Act to provide necessary conditions for market competition and to stimulate creative business activities, protect consumers, and promote the balanced development of the natural economy, by prohibiting restrictive contracts and business practices that substantially lessened competition”. It was also to be a Bill to regulate “possible abuses of dominant positions by businesses, and anti-competitive combines, and to establish the Federal Competition Commission, for effective implementation and enforcement of all the provisions of the bill”.  According to relevant sections of the bill, cartel agreements amongst competitors, including price fixing, bid rigging and market division, were also to be expressly criminalised. Clearly a robust and comprehensive bill, 16 years after introduction to the Nigerian National Assembly, the bill remains to be passed into law. Several amendments have since been presented, together with other bills presented by lawmakers. In every case, such bills have either stalled at first reading stage, or in certain cases disappeared from the legislative process. In one of such instances, an amendment of the above bill (The Federal Trade and Competition Commission Bill, 2006) was “vehemently” objected to by distinguished Senators, prompting governmental withdrawal. Amongst reasons advanced for the reception accorded the bill included that there was no need for a distinct ‘competition commission’, in the face of an already existent consumer protection council in Nigeria; other legislators simply complained about a proliferation of “too many commissions” in the country. Commentators have alluded to overt ignorance and lack of particular inclination for the subject, on the part of Nigerian Senators, as in reality underlining the reception accorded the bill.

In a paper recently presented at the #SLSA2016, ‘Developing Countries, Nigeria, and Cartel Criminalisation: of Transplantation and Desirability’ I had outlined how Nigeria’s attempt to introduce a competition law, and in particular criminalise cartel activity, reveals a (marked) lack of societal inclination towards competition law and prior poor advocacy on the part of government. Social norms are crucial to the effectiveness of law reform. Desirable social norms ensures amongst other things that prohibited conduct will be reported and discovered, even without direct enforcement or investigativeBob Enofe intervention, thereby complementing stretched law enforcement efforts.[1] Such also imply that prosecutors will be willing to enforce and vigorously police provisions of the law where passed, and in the case of the judiciary, stringent sentences will also be applied—or at least not deliberately avoided—so as to facilitate the deterrence potential of the applicable law. Perhaps most crucially for Nigeria, existence of such norms also mean that law makers are incentivised to support reform efforts, while the chances of ‘hijack’ by private interests will be slim. Absent such norms the chances of Nigeria’s competition and cartel criminalisation law, even when passed, could be (remarkably) marginal.

Heightened advocacy, together with a careful selection of test cases once the law is enacted is advanced as capable of remedying the above situation. In the face of sub-par institutions characteristic of the Nigerian context however (including severe limitations in the operation of the rule of law), abilities to so ‘guide’ social norms will be in reality seriously limited. An online petition regarding corruption amongst Nigerian senators, for example, reflect in part difficulties that could frustrate transplantation of cartel criminalisation, absent independent, effective, anti-corruption reforms in the country.

Neoliberal theories of rational actors, sanction and deterrence, imply to large extents a similar existence of contexts as have underlined effectiveness in western societies. In many cases, on the ground realities suggest that theories where transplanted, could be seriously flawed.

As I have argued in another paper currently under review (details to be communicated soon, hopefully!), one size cannot fit all- with developing countries and cartel criminalisation, the point gains extra force. To the extent that fines and other administrative means of enforcement are limited in ability to effectively curtail cartel practices, suggests a need for continuation of relevant research. Criminalisation hardly represents the ‘Golden Fleece’.

Footnote:

[1] See Stephan, Andreas, ‘Cartel laws undermined: Corruption, social norms, and collectivist business cultures’ (2010) Journal of Law and Society 345-367, See Maher, Imelda, The Institutional Structure of Competition Law, in Dowdle, Gillespie and Maher (eds) Asian Capitalism and the Regulation of Competition: Towards a Regulatory Geography of Global Competition Law (Cambridge University Press, 2013) 55, See Gal, Michal  ‘The Ecology of Antitrust: Preconditions for Competition Law Enforcement in Developing Countries.’ (2004) Competition, Competitiveness and Development 20-38.

Merger Control in Africa: Hot Topic at the 2016 ABA Spring Meeting

Key competition-law conference features dedicated panel discussion on African antitrust developments

By Michael-James Currie

The 54th annual American Bar Association Antitrust Spring Meeting was held in Washington, D.C., during the second week of April 2016 and the AAT editors were there to ensure that we provide our readers with an update on the latest developments in relation to African antitrust issues, discussed during a panel held last Friday.

ABA Africa Panelists

ABA Africa Panelists

Given that mergers hit a global all-time high last year with the total value of transactions amounting to over USD 4.6 trillion, merger control is certainly at the forefront of many antitrust practitioners. The interest in mergers and acquisitions has perhaps gained even further attention in light of the announcement this week that the USD160 billion Pfizer/Allergan global mega-deal has been officially abandoned, despite the transaction having already been filed before all the relevant competition agencies around the world. While the Pfizer/Allergan deal was called off as a result of new tax laws and therefore not as a result of antitrust issues directly, the deal did put multinational mega-deals firmly in the spotlight.

The Pfizer/Allergan deal is not the only mega-deal that faced significant government opposition. It was announced this week that Halliburton’s takeover of Baker Hughes, in a deal valued at USD 25 billion, is going to be strongly opposed by the U.S. DOJ.

It is, however, not only the U.S. Government that is having a significant impact on multinational deals, as evidenced by the Anbang Insurance and Starwood Hotels & Resorts deal, valued at USD 14 billion, which has also been abandoned after mounting pressure by the Chinese government.

From an African perspective, the South African Competition Commission just last week extended its investigation in the USD 104 billion SABMiller and Anheuser-Busch InBev merger. It is widely suspected that the request for the extension is due to intervention by the Minister of Economic Development, in relation to public interest grounds. Although there is no suggestion at this stage that Minister Patel is opposing the deal, the proposed intervention does highlight bring into sharp focus the fact that multinational mega-deals face a number of hurdles in getting the deal done.

‘Getting multinational deals through’ is a hot topic at the moment amongst antitrust practitioners and is and the ABA thought it beneficial to have a panel discussion dedicated purely to merger control issues across African jurisdictions. In particular, the panel addressed some of the key issues which merging parties need to consider, including inter alia issues relating to harmonisation across agencies, the role of public interest considerations, prior implementation and the need for upfront substantive economic assessments.

The panel consisted of a varied mix of panellists from both private practice and government, and included Pr1merio director John Oxenham (he is also a founding partner at South African based law firm Nortons Inc.), economist and former Commissioner of the COMESA Competition Commission (COMESA CC) Rajeev Hasnah (Rajeev was also a former commissioner of the Mauritius Competition Commission and is an economist for Pr1merio), manager of the South African Competition Commission office, Wendy Ndlovu, and Kenyan based external counsel Anne Kiunuhe (Anne practices at the law firm Anjarwalla & Khanna).

The panellists were tasked with addressing a variety of topics: we summarise below some of the key issues which the panellists highlighted, which merging parties, practitioners and antitrust agencies themselves (amongst whom Tembikosi Bonakele, the South African Competition Commissioner was present in the panel audience) should be cognisant of in relation to merger control in Africa.

John Oxenham and Wendy

John Oxenham and Wendy Ndlovu at ABA Spring Meeting 2016 in Washington, D.C.

John Oxenham

John pointed out that from a South African perspective, mergers undergo a robust evaluation by the Competition Authorities and that although the investigation of most large mergers is completed within 60-70 days, the fact that the Commission may request the Competition Tribunal for an extension of up to 15 business days at a time, may result in the investigation of certain mergers taking considerably longer. The risk of a merger being delayed is increased significantly due to the level of third party interventionism, particularly ministerial intervention on public interest grounds.

John advised that merging parties should consider the impact that a particular merger will have on the public-interest grounds upfront to avoid delays in the investigation period as a result of further requests for information from the Commission, or may even amount to an incomplete filing.

In respect of substantive economic assessments, John pointed out that a number of jurisdictions, including South Africa, Namibia, Zambia and to a lesser extent Botswana, requires a substantive upfront economic assessment. In this regard the South African Competition Commission is perhaps the most robust in its economic evaluation of a merger in light of the resources dedicated to its own in-house economic department as well as utilising external experts when necessary. John also highlighted the fact that the South African Competition Authorities rely on oral testimony and expert witnesses are often subjected to substantial and lengthy examination and cross examination before the Competition Tribunal.

On the topic of gun-jumping or prior implementation, John mentioned that the following jurisdictions are examples of countries which do not require notification prior to implementing the transaction – in other words, they are not suspensory:

  1. Malawi
  2. Senegal
  3. Mauritius

Whereas the following countries do require notification prior to implementation (suspensory merger control jurisdictions):

  1. South Africa
  2. Swaziland
  3. Zambia
  4. Botswana

On harmonisation, John confirmed that in relation to public interest considerations in merger control, the South African competition authorities play a leading role on the African continent and pointed out that in addition to Kenya and Tanzania, Namibia also considers public interest considerations and that there is a substantial amount of collaboration and information sharing between the South African and Namibian competition authorities, as was the case in the Walmart/Massmart deal.

Despite the information sharing between agencies, John confirmed that there are rules in place to protect confidential and legally privileged information and that the South African competition authorities are cognisant and respectful of these provisions.

Rajeev Hasnah

Rajeev Hasnah, Pr1merio economist and former COMESA Competition Commissioner

Rajeev Hasnah, Pr1merio economist and former COMESA Competition Commissioner, and Anne Kiunuhe from Kenya

Rajeev noted the significant progress which the COMESA CC has made in relation to merger control by publishing financial thresholds for mandatorily notifiable transactions and specified filing fees, as well as publishing guidelines which clarify when a merger will have a sufficient regional dimension to fall within the COMESA CC’s jurisdiction.

On the topic of harmonisation, Rajeev discussed the challenges due to a lack of harmonisation between COMESA and its member states and noted that COMESA does not have exclusive jurisdiction in the cases which do fall within its jurisdiction. Parties, therefore, may find themselves being required to file a merger both before the COMESA CC as well as before the respective national authorities. A further challenge facing the COMESA CC is that there are 19 member states and consequently, the relevant geographic market is significant. Accordingly, often the national authorities are best placed to evaluate a merger and will therefore defer the evaluation of the merger to the relevant national authority.

On the role of economic assessments, Rajeev stated that an economic assessment underlies any merger evaluation and that both the Mauritius Competition Commission and the COMESA Competition Commission conducts a comprehensive economic assessment of a merger.

Wendy Ndlovu

When asked on what role public interest considerations play in merger control in terms of the South African competition regime, Wendy indicated that the framework of the Competition Act specifically requires the competition authorities to consider the impact that a merger may have on the four specified public interest provisions contained in the Act. Wendy confirmed that an evaluation of public interest considerations may both justify a merger despite the merger likely being likely to cause a substantial lessening or prevention of competition in the market, alternatively, public interest considerations may lead to a prohibition or the imposition of conditions on a merger which raises no competition law concerns and may in fact be pro-competitive.

Wendy recognised that there is a need, however, for greater certainty in respect to the manner in which the South African authorities evaluate public interest considerations and pointed out that the Competition Commission is likely to finalise and publish its guidelines on the public interest assessment in an effort to promote greater certainty.

On prior the issue of prior implementation, Wendy pointed out that merging parties need to be mindful of the consequences of gun-jumping and noted that the South African Competition Tribunal has imposed administrative penalties, as in the Netcare case, on parties for failing to notify a mandatorily notifiable transaction.

Anne Kiunuhe

Anne discussed the Competition Authority of Kenya’s (CAK) willingness to focus not only on merger control but has also identified the CAK’s increasing tendency to investigate and prosecute firms engaged in restrictive practices (as demonstrated by the recent dawn raids conducted by the CAK in the fertiliser industry). Despite the CAK’s growing confidence, Anne pointed out that in respect of merger control, the CAK is open to and in fact often relies on precedent from foreign jurisdictions when evaluating a merger. In particular, Anne noted that public interest grounds are specifically considered during the merger review procedure and that in this respect, the CAK largely takes the lead from the South African competition authorities.

From a practical perspective, Anne mentioned that the CAK usually requests a meeting with the merging parties soon after a transaction has been notified, and that usually representatives from the merging parties, along with local external legal counsel, should be present. The CAK prefers that the representatives present should be the best placed to answer or address the CAK’s queries. This often necessitates representatives from the parent company being present as opposed to representatives from the subsidiary entities only.

The direct contact between the CAK and the merging parties is quite different from the manner in which the COMESA CC evaluates mergers where the consideration of a merger is done solely on the papers and any communication between the COMESA CC and the merging parties is done through the merging parties’ local external counsel.

As to legislative developments, Anne pointed out that the merger regulations in Kenya now provide that for purposes of establishing a “change of control”, it is sufficient if the acquiring firm is able to materially influence the commercial decisions of the target firm. Accordingly, the acquisition of a minority shareholding for instance may constitute a change of control if the holders of such shares may for instance exercise veto rights.

On COMESA, Anne mentioned that the COMESA CC permits merging parties to seek a comfort letter when unsure as to whether a merger requires filing and that the use of comfort letters has been rather prevalent.

Conclusion

The role of public interest considerations in merger control was a dominant focus point throughout the panel discussion due to this unique aspect in a growing number of African jurisdictions merger control provisions.

Please click on the following link to access a an article on the role of public  interest considerations in merger control in South Africa, which addresses in particular, the impact of ministerial intervention in merger proceedings and the concomitant impact which such intervention has on the costs, timing and certainty of merger proceedings.

The Big Picture: Market-Sector Inquiries in Africa

AAT the big picture

Market Inquiries in Africa – An Overview

By AAT guest author, Michael-James Currie.

Most African jurisdictions with competition laws have included provisions in their respective legislations that allow the competition authorities to conduct market inquiries.

Market inquiries have proved to be useful tools for competition agencies in numerous jurisdictions, particularly in Europe, and is becoming a common and increasingly popular tool amongst an number of African agencies as well.

Despite the benefits that may flow from a market inquiry, it is important that competition agencies appreciate and have due regard to the costs associated with such inquiries. Market inquiries are very time consuming and onerous for market participants and should be used sparingly. Having said that, the focus of market inquiries in most African jurisdictions tend to be on markets which the relevant authorities have identified as having a large impact on consumers.

In other words, socio-economic considerations appear to be a significant factor during the screening process used in deciding whether to institute a market inquiry. Sectors such as food, healthcare and banking (at an individual consumer level) are some of the common industries which have been ‘prioritised’ or identified as important sectors.

While the number of market inquiries which have been concluded on the African continent is limited, as competition agencies gain more expertise and confidence in their mandates, there is likely to be a significant increase in the number of market inquiries instituted and firms conducting business in Africa, particularly within ‘priority’ sectors, should be cognisant of this.

We set out below a brief overview of the market inquiries which are currently being conducted in the various African jurisdictions.

South Africa

There are currently three market inquiries which are underway, one into the private healthcare sector and the other into the grocery retail market. The third market inquiry is in the liquefied petroleum gas sector.

The private healthcare inquiry was launched on the basis that cost of private health care in South Africa is a concern to the competition authorities. A revised statement of Issues for public comment was announced on 11 February 2016 and comments are to be submitted by 11 March 2016.

The grocery retail inquiry is focussed largely on the stricture of the market and the ability of smaller or informal retailers to compete, but will also address issues such as “long term lease” clauses (which has already been adjudicated upon by the Competition Tribunal).

The third market inquiry is into the LPG which was launched in August 2014 is expected to conclude in March 2016.

The only previous market inquiry concluded in South Africa was into the banking sector. This inquiry was conducted on an informal basis as there were no formal legislative powers bestowed on the competition authorities to conduct market inquiries.

Swaziland

The Swaziland Competition Commission (SCC) announced in January 2016 that a market inquiry has been launched into the retail banking sector. The SCC stated that retail banking service offered to consumers, micro and medium enterprises remained the most important sub-sector of banking. It is, however, the ‘current account’ which is the central product to be used as the starting point for the inquiry.

Zambia

On 1 February 2016, the Zambian Competition Authority (CCPC) announced that it will be conducting a market inquiry into the vehicle towing industry. While the CCPC indicated that it wishes to understand the “conditions of competition in the market”, although the inquiry came about as the CCPC had received numerous complaints from consumers that emergency towing operators were charging high prices. It remains to be seen whether this inquiry is focused predominantly on competition-law issues, or rather consumer-protection laws.

Botswana

The Competition Authority in Botswana (CA) is currently underway with a market inquiry into the grocery retail sector, focusing on shopping malls and in particular, the impact of long term exclusivity leases on competition in the market.

COMESA

Consistent with the competition authorities of South Africa and Botswana, the COMESA Competition Commission (“CCC”) has also launched an investigation into the impact that shopping malls have on competition. The CCC announced that it will carry out their inquiry by taking samples from the member states.

We have previously published articles on the announcement of this market inquiry on AAT which can be accessed by clicking on the following link: https://africanantitrust.com/category/market-study/

The Big Picture (AAT): East Africa & Antitrust Enforcement

AAT the big picture

East-Africa & Antitrust: Enforcement of EAC Competition Act

By AAT guest author, Anne Brigot-Laperrousaz.

Introduction: Back in 2006…

The East African Community (the “EAC”) Competition Act of 2006 (the “Act”) was published in the EAC Gazette in September 2007. The Act was taken as a regulatory response to the intensification of competition resulting from the Customs Union entered into in 2005. This was the first of the four-step approach towards strengthening relations between member States, as stated in Article 5(1) of the Treaty Establishing the EAC.

Challenges facing the EAC

As John Oxenham, an Africa practitioner with advisory firm Pr1merio, notes, “10 years have passed since the adoption of the EAC Act, yet it remains unclear when (and if) the EAC will develop a fully functional competition law regime.”

The EAC Competition Authority (the “Authority”) was intended to be set up by July 2015, after confirmation of the member States’ nominees for the posts of commissioners. Unfortunately Rwanda, Uganda and Burundi failed to submit names of nominees for the positions available, and the process has become somewhat idle, leaving questions open as to future developments.

The main challenges facing the EAC identified by the EAC’s Secretariat is firstly, the implementation of national competition regulatory frameworks in all member States; and secondly, the enhancement of public awareness and political will[1].

The first undertaking was the adoption of competition laws and the establishment of competition institutions at a national level, by all member states, on which the sound functioning of the EAC competition structure largely relies.

Apart from Uganda, all EAC member States have enacted a competition act, although with important discrepancies as to their level of implementation at a national level.

The second aspect of the EAC competition project is the setting up of the regional Competition Authority, which was to be ensured and funded by all members of the EAC, under the supervision of the EAC Secretariat. Although an interim structure has been approved by member States, the final measures appear to be at a deadlock.

As mentioned, the nomination of the commissioners and finalisation of the setting up of the EAC Competition Authority came to a dead-end in July 2015, despite the $701,530 was set aside in the financial budget to ensure the viability of the institution[2]. It is widely considered, however, that this amount is still insufficient to ensure the functionality of the Competition Authority.  Andreas Stargard, also with Pr1merio, points out that “[t]he EAC has been said to be drafting amendments to its thus-far essentially dormant Competition Act to address antitrust concerns in the region.  However, this has not come to fruition and work on developing the EAC’s competition authority into a stable body has been surpassed by its de facto competitor, the COMESA Competition Commission.”

Furthermore, inconsistencies among national competition regimes within the EAC are an important impediment to the installation of a harmonised regional enforcement. Finally, international reviews as well as national doctrine and practice commentaries have highlighted the lack public sensitization and political will to conduct this project.

A further consideration, as pointed out by Wang’ombe Kariuki, Director-General of the Competition Authority of Kenya, is the challenge posed by the existence of the Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa (“COMESA”).

Conclusion

The implementation of the EAC has not seen much progress since its enactment, despite its important potential and necessity[3]. It therefore remains to be seen how the EAC deals with the various challenges and whether it will ever become a fully functional competition agency.

A quick summation of the status of the national laws of the various EAC members can be seen below. For further and more comprehensive assessments of the various member states competition law regimes please see African Antitrust for more articles dealing with the latest developments.

EAC Member States Status

Tanzania

The Tanzanian Fair Competition Act (the “FCA”) was enacted in 2003, along with the institution of a Commission and Tribunal responsible for its enforcement. The FCA became operational in 2005. Tanzania’s competition regime was analysed within the ambit of an UNCTAD voluntary peer review in 2012[4]. The UNCTAD concluded that Tanzania had overall “put in place a sound legal and institutional framework”, containing “some of the international best practices and standards”.

This report, however, triggered discussions on major potential changes to the FCA, which would impact, in particular, institutional weaknesses and agency effectiveness[5]. One of the most radical changes announced consisted in the introduction of criminal sanctions against shareholders, directors and officers of a firm engaged in cartel conduct[6], although there is no sign that this reform will be adopted.

Kenya

Kenya, following a 2002 OECD report[7] and the European Union competition regulation model, replaced its former legislation with the 2010 Competition Act, which came into force in 2011, and established a Competition Authority and Tribunal. Under the UNCTAD framework, the 2015 assessment of the implementation of the recommendations made during a voluntary peer review conveyed in 2005[8] was generally positive. It was noted, however, that there was an important lack of co-operation between the Competition Authority and sectoral regulators, and that there was a need for clear merger control thresholds[9].

Burundi

Burundi adopted a Competition Act in 2010, which established the Competition Commission as the independent competition regulator. To date, the Act has not yet been implemented, and accordingly no competition agency is in operation[10].

A 2014 study led by the Burundian Consumers Association (Association Burundaise des Consommateurs, “Abuco”) (which was confirmed by the Ministry of Trade representative) pointed to the lack of an operating budget as one of the main obstacles to the pursuit of the project[11].

Rwanda and Uganda

Rwanda enacted its Competition and Consumer Protection Law in 2012, and established the Competition and Consumer Protection Regulatory Body.

As for Uganda, to date no specific legal regime has been put in place in Uganda as regards competition matters, although projects have been submitted to Uganda’s cabinet and Parliament, in particular a Competition Bill issued by the Uganda Law Reform Commission, so far unsuccessfully.

 

Footnotes:

[1] A Mutabingwa “Should EAC regulate competition?” (2010), East African Community Secretariat

[2] C Ligami, “EAC to set up authority to push for free, fair trade” (2015), The EastAfrican

[3] O Kiishweko, “Tanzania : Dar Praised for Fair Business Environment” (2015), Tanzania Daily News

[4] UNCTAD “ Voluntary Peer Review on competition policy: United Republic of Tanzania” (2012), UNCTAD/DITC/CLP/2012/1

[5] S Ndikimi, “The future of fair competition in Tanzania” (2013), East African Law Chambers

[6] O Kiishweko, “Tanzania: Fair Competition Act for Review’ (2012), Tanzania Daily News.

[7] OECD Global Forum on Competition, Contribution from Kenya, “ Kenya’s experience of and needs for capacity building/technical assistance in competition law an policy “ (2002), Paper n°CCNM/GF/COMP/WD(2002)7

[8] UNCTAD, “ Voluntary Peer Review on competition policy: Kenya” (2005), UNCTAD/DITC/CLP/2005/6

[9] MM de Fays, “ UNCTAD peer review mechanism for competition law : 10 years of existence – A comparative analysis of the implementation of the Peer Review’s recommendations across several assessed countries” (2015)

[10] Burundi Investment Promotion Authority “Burundi at a Glance – Legal and political structure”, http://www.investburundi.com/en/legal-structure

[11] Africa Time, “Loi sur la concurrence : 4 ans après, elle n’est pas encore appliquée” (Competition Law : 4 years after, it is still not implemented) (2014), http://fr.africatime.com/burundi/articles/loi-sur-la-concurrence-4-ans-apres-elle-nest-pas-encore-appliquee

The Big Picture: Public-Interest Factors in Antitrust

AAT the big picture

Public-Interest Considerations in Competition Policy Take Center Stage… Once Again

By Michael Currie

An increasing trend in South Africa’s competition regulatory environment is the emphasis that the competition authorities and policy makers are placing on what is known as public-interest provisions. While we have authored a number of articles that have been published on African Antitrust highlighting our concern and disapproval of an overly-zealous reliance on public interest provisions, especially in the framework of merger control, the Competition Authorities have become increasingly bold in shaping there policies around public interest and industrial policy agendas.

In this article, we discuss the Vodacom/Neotel merger as well as COSATU’s response to the announcement that market inquiry will be conducted in the grocery retail sector, as these two developments personify the influence that Minister Patel has over the SACC’s policy and the very clear industrial policy agenda’s that Patel is using the SACC to promote.

In the past number of years in South Africa, public interest considerations have been no more prevalent than in merger control. While, to date, there has not been a merger prohibited based purely on public interest grounds, there have been a number of mergers which, despite no finding having been made that such a merger will lessen competition, have been approved subject to significantly onerous conditions, based on public-interest grounds.

south_africaThe Law

The South African Competition Act, 89 of 1998 (“Competition Act”) requires that the competition authorities consider the impact of a merger on certain public interest grounds, which are expressly listed in Section 12A of the Competition Act.

We have, on African Antitrust,[1] consistently stressed the inappropriateness of imposing burdensome conditions on mergers relating to public interest considerations, and raised the legitimate concerns that the South African Competition Authorities are increasingly being utilised as a mechanism by which to promote the government’s industrial policies.

Furthermore, conditions have been imposed on mergers without any substantial assessment done on balancing potential short term losses with long term gains.

Be that as it may, the conditions that have most commonly been imposed on mergers, based on public interest grounds, relates to employment. The impact of a merger on employment is one of the express public interest considerations that is contained in Section 12A.

What is deeply concerning, however, that as we will discuss below, the SACC has recently broadened the scope of public interest considerations to extend well past those grounds listed in Section 12A, effectively ensuring that when it comes to evaluating a merger on public interest grounds, the SACC is effectively, unrestricted.

Vodacom

Vodacom is South Africa’s largest mobile service provider and merging with Neotel would allow Vodacom to fast-track its rollout of a fixed line network.  The merger still needs to be approved by the South African Competition Tribunal (“SACT”).

On 30 June 2015, the SACC made recommendations to the SACT to approve the merger between Vodacom and Neotel, subject to stringent conditions.

The conditions recommended to be imposed on this merger will certainly ring alarm bells for all entities (especially large businesses which have a BEE shareholding) who are considering undertaking a merger in South Africa.

The SACC, who is of the view that the merger will substantially lessen competition in the market, has recommended that the following conditions to be imposed on the merger:

  • There be no retrenchments of Neotel employees;
  • That Vodacom invest R10 billion (approximately $1 billion) into data, connectivity and fixed line infrastructure; and
  • That Vodacom’s Black Economic Empowerment (“BEE”) shareholding is increased by R1.9 billion (the value of Neotel) multiplied by 19%.

The SACC’s recommendation that Vodacom’s BEE shareholding has to increase to a certain value is considerably worrisome, as it is very difficult, in our view, to justify the imposition of such a condition, in terms of the law or in terms of any social policy objective.

As noted above, the competition authorities are obliged, in terms of the Competition Act, to consider the impact that a merger may have on a number of public interest grounds. In terms of the Competition Act, the SACC and SACT, when evaluating a merger, must consider the impact that the merger will have on:

  • “A particular industry sector or region;
  • Employment;
  • The ability of small businesses, or firms controlled or owned by historically disadvantaged persons, to become competitive; and
  • The ability of national industries to compete in international markets.”[2]

Simply put, there is in our view, no justifiable legal basis, upon which to impose a condition relating to the BEE shareholding as proposed by the SACC in this merger.

A Disconcerting Trend Away from Law & Economics

Regardless of whether the merging parties accept the SACC’s recommended conditions, the competition authorities are increasingly using conditions imposed in previous mergers, as precedent to justify and become increasingly ambitious when considering conditions to be imposed on any prospective transaction. Thus, even if the conditions imposed in this particular merger are not overly-burdensome on the parties themselves, it is most likely that the conditions, should they be approved by the SACT, will set new precedent for any future transactions.

The competition authorities are inadvertently creating a ‘threshold’ of conditions. This is evident by the way in which the Commission seems to default to a recommendation of a two-to-three year moratorium on retrenchments, whenever there is a concern arising or pressure placed on the SACC relating to retrenchments.

It is well noted that timing is of critical importance when it comes to the success of a implementing a merger. The fact that the SACC has quite brazenly taken upon itself, the duty to foster and advance the government’s socio-economic and industrial policies no doubt leads to greater uncertainty as to the nature of the conditions that may be imposed on a proposed merger.

In this regard it is worth noting that the SACC has published draft guidelines (currently for public comment) on the Assessment of Public Interest Provisions on Mergers (the “Guidelines”). While the Guidelines are still in draft form, like most of the SACC’s guidelines published to date, it allow for a significant degree of discretion on the part of the SACC.

The Guidelines were an attempt to provide greater clarity and certainty when it comes to assessing the impact that a merger may have on the public interest grounds listed in Section 12A of the Competition Act, however, the Guidelines do not provide guidance with respect to assessing the impact that a merger may have on grounds not listed in Section 12A.

Hence, despite the Guidelines seeking to add clarity and certainty to the issue, the SACC’s expansion of public-interest grounds has for all practical purposes brought us back to square one.

Another Market Inquiry: Grocery/Retail

As mentioned above, public-interest considerations have now been used as the catalyst to drive other competition objectives; most notably, the recently announced market inquiry into the grocery retail sector.

It has been our suspicion from the outset that the market inquiry into the retail sector is driven by an underlying desire to promote Patel’s industrial policies, rather than address any or understand the structure of the market to ensure more competitive market is advanced.

The response by one of South Africa’s largest trade unions, COSATU, has publicly proclaimed its support for the market inquiry, and the reasons advanced in support of the inquiry, very much confirms our suspicions.

In an article published on their website, COSATU has expressed a number of reasons why they support the inquiry. Unsurprisingly, few of the reasons put forward relate to a desire to better understand the functioning of the market from a competition perspective. Much like Mr Patel, the Minister of Economic Development, COSATU has viewed the market inquiry from a socio-economic paradigm as opposed to a competition one.

While the grocery retail market share is largely attributed to the four biggest retailers in the South Africa, the broad ambit of the inquiry coupled with Patel’s comments made in Parliament in which he stated that the retail sector was a great entry point for black South Africans should leave little doubt in any objective observer’s mind that the market inquiry into the grocery sector is steeped in promoting governments industrial policies through the channels of competition regulation.

It should also come as no surprise that Patel was previously a labour activist and previously headed the Southern African Clothing and Textile Workers Union (SACTWU).

COSATU has expressed its support for the market inquiry, largely because COSATU is of the view that the market inquiry will address a number of socio-economic concerns. The following statement made by COSATU clearly illustrates as much:

“It should also be noted that the grocery retail sector is characterized by precarious and atypical employment. Most workers in the sector do not enjoy their basic labour-related socio-economic rights. Negative practices such as labour broking, outsourcing, casualisation and low-pay are prevalent in the sector. COSATU strongly believes that this inquiry is essential for addressing the above-mentioned socio-economic trends.”[3]

The preamble to the Competition Act recognises that Apartheid created a certain concentration of market shares and that South Africa needs a greater spread of ownership. In no way, however, can competition law be used as policy to address, replace and undermine legislation and institutions designed specifically to address identified concerns. In other words, the claim made by COSATU that the market inquiry will address negative labour practices, shows a fundamental flaw in understanding the purpose and nature of competition law and policy.

South Africa has extensive labour legislation and a number of institutions that have been established to deal with negative labour practices.

Placing the responsibility of protecting our labour workforce beyond the scope of the Competition Act, would undermine the efforts of the legislature as well as the institutions entrusted in promoting and enforcing fair labour practices.

Furthermore, even if the market inquiry does in one way or another lead to a greater number of smaller independent retailers, it is difficult to foresee how this will benefit labour conditions. Large retailers’ employees generally belong to trade unions who can act as a voice on their behalf. Employees of small retailers have far less bargaining power.

While it may be that COSATU, as a trade union, need not be too concerned with competition issues as such, trade unions in general have played have had an increasingly significant influence on competition law policy.

It is imperative that an institution such as the SACC remain independent and impartial, yet the SACC’s willingness to align itself with the policies Patel is championing for undoubtedly risks the independence, proper functioning and impartiality of the SACC — a risk the SACC must ensure it protects itself against.


[1] See here, here, and here.

[2] Section 12A(3) of the Competition Act, 89 of 1998.

[3] http://www.cosatu.org.za/show.php?ID=10618#sthash.XLWeNExH.dpuf

Competition Regulation & the ‘spaghetti bowl’ of regional African integration

AAT the big picture

Professor Tchapga on competition legislation in a future regionally integrated Africa

AAT’s own contributing author and Primerio consultant, Professor Flavien TCHAPGA has drafted a paper for the African Economic Conference in Johannesburg.  The conference is organized each year by AfdB, UNECA & UNDP.

We are proud to present his paper here (written in French), which is entitled “Perspective de la régulation concurrentielle des marchés dans la future zone de libre échange continentale en Afrique : Enjeux et défis“.

The concise and eminently readable expose deals with the current and proposed competition regulation in the growing African free-trade area.  It provides a comprehensive overview of, and new insights into, the ‘spaghetti bowl’ of African regional integration and the necessary (yet little developed) competition regulation that must go along with it.

We invite our readership, especially the francophone and francophile contingent, to download and peruse Professor Tchapga’s work.  His prior related work, also published here, has been on developing effective competition policies in Africa and on the inherent tension this effort faces, focused on the member countries of CEMAC and WAEMU.