Enforcement Alert: MU Competition Commission to Permit Cartel Initiators to Seek Leniency

The Competition Commission of Mauritius (CCM) has announced changes to its leniency programme. Though the CCM did have a functioning leniency programme in place since its inception in 2009, the it was often criticised as being inadequate.

Competition lawyer John Oxenham notes that under the existing programme, firms which were found to be cartel ‘initiators’ (an enterprise which has coerced others into a collusive agreement) did not qualify to receive any immunity or other benefit.

John Oxenham

John Oxenham

Oxenham believes that this had led to uncertainty and prevented companies from applying for leniency (which required full disclosure of anti-competitive conduct), as firms may be unsure whether or not they would be considered to be ‘instigators’ (and so be disqualified from receiving immunity from prosecution). This meant that firms often had to weigh the risk of being considered an ‘initiator’ against the risk of prosecution to ultimately decide on whether to apply for leniency.

The CCM had previously identified this aspect as a potential area of concern, which led to the temporary special amnesty programmes under which firms who believed themselves to be ‘initiators’ could apply for leniency. This, according to the CCM, led to various successful leniency applications and related prosecutions.

In its media release of 23 January 2018, CCM executive director Deshmuk Kowlessure stated that “[w]ith respect to leniency programmes, we have observed that several advanced competition authorities have adopted leniency for cartel initiators and coercers…” “Likewise, the CCM has taken a step beyond traditional leniency programmes and we are now extending the possibility for initiators or coercers to apply for leniency.”

The recent amendment, therefore, seeks to formalise the CCM’s previous (temporary) amnesty programme for ‘initiators’ by allowing them to approach the CCM for leniency in return for a 50% reduction in the administrative penalty otherwise payable, says fellow Primerio Ltd. antitrust attorney Andreas Stargard.  “This level of fine reduction is in line with what the CCM has been offering in the past to leniency applicants who were not ‘first through the door’.  Unlike certain other countries, such as the United States, where the Department of Justice offers leniency benefits only to the first successful applicant, Mauritius allows for successive, reduced penalties to subsequent amnesty seekers.”

Corporate leniency policies are widely considered to be the most effective tool in the prosecution of cartel conduct. The CCM’s decision to include ‘initiators’ among those eligible to participate, therefore, not only strengthens its leniency programme but is also a significant step towards the prosecution and enforcement of cartel conduct in Mauritius, as more leniency applications directly imply more prosecutions of fellow cartelists.

Oxenham notes that the inclusion of initiators into the CCM’s official corporate leniency policy is welcomed from a business perspective, as it alleviates the concerns prospective leniency applicants may have previously had: “It will certainly lead to an increase in the amount of leniency applications received by the CCM”.

According the CCM’s media release, its guideline for leniency applicants will be amended accordingly and an explanatory note will be made available on its website in due course.

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Ethiopia Competition Agency Files Charges against Fourteen Metal Producers

By Stephany Torres, contributing AAT writer

On 28 January 2018 the Ethiopian Trade Competition and Consumer Protection Authority (“TCCPA”) filed charges against fourteen Ethiopian rebar, corrugated sheet, steel tube and pipe producers and seven rebar importers respectively for allegedly fixing prices in contravention of Article 7(1) of the Ethiopian Trade Competition and Consumer Protection Proclamation (“Article 7(1)”), which provides that “(1) An agreement between or concerted practice by, business persons or a decision by association of business persons in a horizontal relationship shall be prohibited if:…(b) it involves, directly or indirectly, fixing a purchase or selling price or any other trading condition, collusive tendering or dividing markets by allocating customers, suppliers territories or specific types of goods or services”.

It is worth mentioning that in most jurisdictions, which have an active competition law enforcement regime in place, ‘cartel conduct’ (i.e. price fixing, market allocation and/or collusion) is a per se prohibition in that the conduct is prohibited outright, without an examination of the actual effects on competition and without permitting a showing of net efficiency or other pro-competitive defensive arguments.

Where cartel conduct is prohibited per se, the relevant competition authorities require no further proof other than the existence of the agreement or concerted practice which underpins the conduct.  The conduct is simply presumed to have negative effects on the relevant market.

Article 7(1) of the TCCPA, however, is not a per se prohibition and is based on the ‘rule-of-reason’ standard – effectively permitting respondents to lead evidence demonstrating that the alleged conduct can be justified by pro-competitive, technology or efficiency gain justifications which outweigh any anti-competitive effect.

From a policy perspective, Africa competition lawyer Michael-James Currie notes that the permissibility of the ‘rule of reason defence’ is largely due to the fact that a respondent who is found to have contravened Article 7(1) of the TCCPA is liable to a penalty calculated at fifteen percent of the respondent’s annual turnover. This is a prescribed penalty. For non-cartel conduct, the penalty ranges between 5-10%.

Of the aforementioned fourteen Ethiopian steel producers; three manufacture reinforcement bars, namely East Steel PLC, Habesha Steel Mills PLC and Saint Nail PLC.  Six are involved in manufacturing corrugated sheets namely; Ethiopian Steel Profile, Ethiopian Steel PLC, Kombolcha Steel Products Industry PLC (KOSPI), a subsidiary of MIDROC Technology Group and Bazeto PLC and amongst the five manufacturers of steel tubes and pipes are Walia Steel Industry PLC and Mame Steel PLC.

The seven rebar importers accused of price fixing include Dag Trading PLC, Aberus PLC, Berhe Hagos PLC, Marka Trading, Beranea Yeshene and Haileselassie Amabye PLC.

Andreas Stargard, competition counsel with Primerio Ltd. notes that the trigger event for engaging in the alleged price fixing was the fifteen percent devaluation of the birr by the National Bank of Ethiopia (NBE) in October 2017 which may have influenced retailers and wholesalers to look for ways of recouping losses by raising prices for their goods and services.

It is, however, in fellow Primerio Director John Oxenham’s view, unlikely for a well-executed price-fixing cartel to be created ad hoc without any pre-existing information exchange structure.  Therefore, pre-existing trade association, interest groups or other vehicles are commonly used as the enabling platform for competitors to engage in collusive conduct.

The defendants are scheduled to submit their response to the Tribunal on February 20, 2018.

The metal and related products sector is a priority sector in Ethiopia and the Ethiopian government is investigating a greater number of business entities involved in the production and importation of metal and metal related products who are also suspected of allegedly fixing prices.

Adverse effects of price-fixing: East Africa recognises drawbacks

It is not really news, but worth mentioning as it is literally happening simultaneously: As the most developed antitrust enforcement jurisdiction in Africa, South Africa, charges ahead with heavy-handed actions, such as denying alleged currency manipulators “access to file” in the investigative process, or accusing two livestock-feed processors of colluding in the sales and pricing of animal feed ‘peel pulp’, the East African nations lag behind.

What is news, however, is that they have begun to recognise the shortcoming and the adverse effects of collusion and other anti-competitive conduct on their economies: Andreas Stargard, an antitrust lawyer with Primerio Ltd., notes that the head of the East African Community (EAC), Mr. Liberat Mfumukeko, recently addressed ongoing antitrust violations in the EAC: “The Secretary denounced anti-competitive practices (cartels and the like) as serious obstacles to obtaining foreign direct investment in the region.  Moreover, he recognised the violations as ‘impeding effective competition’ and thereby directly hurting African consumers,” says Stargard.

Mr Mfumukeko is quoted as stating: “The EAC markets pose challenges to investors and consumers including the charging of high prices arising from anti-competitive practices such as cartels. These practices impede effective competition in the markets.”

Within the EAC, Stargard notes, the primary jurisdictions with operational antitrust regimes are Kenya and Tanzania, with others such as Uganda lagging behind even farther, having no competition legislation or only having draft bills under review.  Most other nations lag behind, although, as Mr. Stargard observes, many are part of the broader COMESA competition regime.  “The COMESA rules, however, have thus far been enforced with a primary objective of merger regulation,” he says, “effectively failing to police any collusive conduct in the close to two dozen member states at all, despite the explicit prohibition thereof in the COMESA regulations.”

South African Competition Commission charges furniture removal company with record number of charges

by Meghan Eurelle

The South African Competition Commission has charged Stuttaford Van Lines, a furniture removal company, with 649 counts of collusive tendering related to hundreds of tenders to transport government furniture. This the largest number of charges faced by a single company in the history of anti-cartel enforcement by the Commission.

The tenders include those issued by the Presidency, Parliament, the National Prosecuting Authority, the South African Secret Service, the South African Police Service, the South African Revenue Services and the Public Protector, among others.

It is likely that the case emanates from the 2010 complaint against the industry that uncovered widespread and deep rooted anti-competitive and collusive conduct in the furniture removal market. The Commission’s investigation revealed Stuttaford colluded with its competitors from at least 2007 through cover quotes.

All the companies alleged to have colluded with Stuttafords, such as JH Retief Transport, Cape Express Removals, Patrick Removals and De Lange Transport, have subsequently settled with the Commission but the case against Stuttaford has been referred to the Tribunal for adjudication.

The Commission is asking the Tribunal to fine the furniture removal company 10 percent of its annual turnover on each of the 649 charges. The Commission’s approach of seeking an administrative penalty in respect of each alleged contravention means that the 10% statutory cap will be applied, on the Commission’s version, for each contravention.

Namibian Supreme Court rules Competition Commission has no Jurisdiction Over Medical Aid Fund Members

By AAT contributors Charl van der Merwe and Aurelie Cassagnes

On 19 July 2017, the Namibian Supreme Court, was tasked with settling a long standing dispute (not the first of its kind) as to whether or not the Respondents fell within the jurisdiction of the Namibian Competition Commission (NCC) in terms of the Namibian Competition Act of 2003 (Namibian Act). The case was brought on appeal by the Namibian Medical Aid Funds (NAMAF) and its members (collectively referred to as the Respondents).

After an investigation lasting a couple of years, the NCC announced in November 2015 that it had considered the behaviour of the Respondents in setting a “benchmark tariff” and found that the practice amounted to Price Fixing in contravention of section 23 of the Namibian Act. The Respondents, in pre-empting the commission’s planned litigation, disputed the NCC’s jurisdiction. The High Court found in favour of the NCC which led to the appeal by the Respondents to the Namibian Supreme Court.

Benchmark tariffs, in short, is a recommended fee, payable to doctors, at which medical aid expenses and consultations are covered. The issues surrounding benchmark tariffs has sparked debate across Africa with ‘those for’ arguing that without them, the medical profession would be “nothing short of economic lawlessness” whilst critics argue that it is “quietly killing off the health-care profession”.

The Namibian High Court, in finding against the Respondents, confirmed the NCC’s jurisdiction over the matter and ruled that determining and recommending a benchmark tariff for medical services was unlawful because it amounted to fixing a selling price. The court, in making its decision, held that “The funds’ activities in formulating a benchmark tariff were not ‘designed to achieve a non-commercial socioeconomic objective’. Rather, it was to produce and distribute wealth.” (Own emphasis)

The main issue to be decided on appeal by the Namibian Supreme Court, however, was not whether the benchmark tariff amounted to a contravention of the Namibian Act, but rather, whether the NCC had jurisdiction over the matter. In other words, whether the Respondents were included under the definition of ‘undertakings’ in terms of the Namibian Act.  Chapter 1 of the Namibian Act provides that:

An “’undertaking’ means any business carried on for gain or reward by an individual, a body corporate, an unincorporated body of persons or a trust in the production supply or distribution of goods or the provision of any service”

The Namibian Supreme Court found that the Respondents were not a “business carried on for gain or reward” and, therefore, were not subject to the provisions of the Namibian Act. As such, the Namibian Supreme Court overruled the High Court’s decision, leaving NAMAF and its members to continue the use of benchmark tariffs.

The South African Competition Tribunal (SACT) had similarly dealt with this issue in a series of Orders during the course of 2004 and 2005 (see the Hospital Association of South Africa and the Board of Healthcare Funders of Southern Africa). In this regard, the SACT found that the relevant medical schemes (the Respondents) fell within the ambit of the South African Competition Act 89 of 1998 (South African Act) and, accordingly, imposed an administrative penalty on the Respondents for “benchmarking tariffs”.

In its consent orders, the South African Competition Commission (SACC), despite mentioning that the Respondents were “an association incorporated not for gain in terms of the company laws in South Africa”, held that the Respondents are an association of firms that “determines, recommends and published tariffs to and/or for its members; and which recommendations has the effect of fixing a purchase price

Furthermore, the SACC, condemned the ‘benchmarking tariffs system’ put in place by the Respondents and argued, despite the fact that the health care professionals were still largely free to determine their own fees, publishing these recommendations amounted to price-fixing which is a per se contravention in terms of section 4(1)(b) of the South African Competition Act.

Accordingly, the differing approaches in Namibia and South Africa come down to the interpretation of what entities fall within the umbrella of the respective Competition Acts.

AFRICANANTITRUST UPDATE: Recent referrals and merger prohibitions by the South African Competition Commission

by Michael-James Currie

The mid-year months of June and July has been a particularly eventful one from the South African Competition Commission’s (SACC) perspective. Following the referrals of two separate abuse of dominance cases in the pharmaceutical and rooibos tea industries respectively, the South African Competition Commission has also referred a number of respondents to the Competition Tribunal for allegedly engaging in ‘cartel conduct’ and conducted a further set of dawn raids – this time on a number of feedlot and meat suppliers.

Most notably, however, the SACC has in a space of three weeks, prohibited four intermediate mergers outright and also recommended the outright prohibition of one large merger. Although it is not altogether uncommon that the SACC prohibits an intermediate merger, the SACC usually approves such mergers subject to suitable conditions in order to remedy any competition or public interest concerns. Typically only a nominal number of intermediate mergers are outright prohibited during any given year. It is, therefore, particularly noteworthy that four intermediate mergers have been prohibited in such a short space of time.

Cartels

Referral of the ‘Brick Cartel’

The South African Competition Commission (SACC) has decided to refer its investigation in respect of the ‘brick cartel’ to the Competition Tribunal for adjudication.

The SACC’s referral includes the following brick manufacturing companies: Corobrik, Era Bricks (Pty) Ltd (Era Bricks), Eston Brick and Tile (Pty) Ltd (Eston Brick), De Hoop Brickfields (Pty) Ltd (De Hoop), Clay Industry CC (Clay Industry) and Kopano Brickworks Ltd (Kopano). It is alleged that Corobrick has entered into separate bilaterial agreements with each of the respondents the terms of which amounts to price fixing or market allocation in contravention section 4(1)(b) of the Competition Act, a per se prohibition.

Corobrick has expressed its surprise that the SACC has referred the matter and has indicated that the SACC has misconstrued the nature of the various agreements.

The SACC appears to have concluded its investigation particularly expeditiously given that the investigation commenced in April 2017 and was referred to the Competition Tribunal three months later. Furthermore, it appears as if the SACC has based its case purely on the SACC’s interpretation of the wording of the relevant agreements. The per se nature of a ‘section 4(1)(b)’ contravention necessitates that firms are particularly cognisant of the wording and terms used in any agreement. Particularly if there is conceivably a horizontal relationship between the contracting parties.

Collusive tendering referrals

The SACC also investigated and referred two separate cases to the Competition Tribunal for alleged collusive tendering.

The first was in relation to the stationary industry. The SACC referred eight respondents to the Competition tribunal for allegedly engaging in collusive conduct in relation to the supply of certain stationary products. The SACC found that the respondents colluded in respect of a tender issued by the Free State Provincial Government based on the respondents quoting the same price for the various products as per their respective bill of quantities.

In a separate investigation, the SACC referred four companies for coordinating their bids in relation to a tender issued by the City of Cape Town for the provision of padlocks for high, medium and low voltage access.

Merger control

The SACC has recently decided to prohibit three intermediate mergers based on concerns relating to coordinated effects and one intermediate mergers on the grounds that the merger would likely lead to a substantial lessening of competition in the market. In addition to these intermediate mergers, the SACC also recommended the prohibition of a large merger in its referral to the Competition Tribunal.

Coordinated conduct

The first was in relation to the Jasco Electronic Holdings (Jasco) and Cross Fire Management (Cross Fire) merger. Notably, the SACC prohibited this merger principally on the basis that the merger was likely to reduce the number of firms operating in the relevant markets which would lead to increased coordinated effects. Importantly, a number of respondents in the fire protection sector, including Cross Fire, are embroiled in an investigation by the SACC in respect of alleged cartel conduct. The investigation follows dawn raids which were conducted on the premises of five fire control and protection services companies in March 2015. Two years later, the SACC referred seven respondents to the Competition Tribunal seeking the imposition of an administrative penalty of 10% of each of the respondent’s respective annual turnover.

Two of the respondents settled their case with the SACC by way of a consent order in in June 2017.

In assessing the merger, the SACC noted that Jasco was not implicated in the cartel but concluded nevertheless that “Jasco Fire will be incorporated into the cartel and the consolidation of the market will enhance or strengthen coordinated effects post-merger”.

The prohibition of the Jasco/Fire Cross merger follows soon after the SACC also prohibited the proposed joint venture between Nippon Yusen Kabushiki Kaisha (NYK), Mitsui O.S.K. Lines Ltd (MOL) and Kawasaki Kisen Kaisha Ltd (KL). In June 2017, the SACC found that the joint venture would likely create a platform for collusion and increase co-ordinated conduct in an industry which is being investigated by a number of competition agencies across the globe. The SACC itself is investigating the shipping line industry and NYK were one of two respondents who settled their case with the SACC by way of a consent order in 2015 for approximately R100 million (US$ 8.3 million).

The third merger which the SACC prohibited was the Timrite and Tuffbag intermediate merger. The SACC found that the proposed transaction in polypropylene-mining based support bags industry would facilitate and enhance potential co-ordinated effects and market allocation arrangements in the manufacturing and distribution of PBMS bags.

Andreas Stargard of Primerio states that “firms looking to merge in a sector which has previously or currently been subject to an investigation for collusion, may already be on the ‘back foot’ and will need to be proactive in assuaging the SACC that the transaction will not increase levels for potential coordination”.

Substantial lessening of competition in the market

The first of the two intermediate mergers prohibited on the grounds that they are likely, from the SACC’s perspective, to lessening competition in the market, was the Greif International BV (Greif) and Rheem South Africa (Pty) Ltd (Rheem) merger in the steel drum manufacturing sector. The SACC found that the merger would effectively be a merger to monopoly and that the pro-competitive efficiencies did not outweigh the likely anticompetitive effects.

In addition to the prohibition of the two intermediate mergers (which may be submitted to the Competition Tribunal for re-consideration), the SACC has also recommended that the proposed large merger between Mediclinic and Matlosana Medical Health Services be prohibited by the Competition Tribunal. The SACC is of the view that the proposed transaction would lead to a substantial lessening of competition in the provision of private healthcare services in the relevant geographic region.

In each of the three mergers, the SACC considered potential remedies but concluded that none of the remedies proposed by the merging parties were suitable.

Stargard points out that the “assessment of mergers in terms of both traditional competition tests as well as from a public interest aspect requires, at times, robust and innovative remedies in order to get the deal through in South Africa”.

[AAT is indebted to the continuous support and assistance of Primerio and its directors in sharing their insights and expertise on various African antitrust matters. To contact a Primerio representative, please see the Primerio brochure for contact details. Alternatively, please visit Primerio’s website]

Beyond the DOJ: Criminal liability for cartel conduct in Africa

South Africa: Driving Force behind Enforcement of Criminal Sanctions for Cartelists?

By AAT Senior Contributor, Michael-James Currie

In May 2016, precisely a year ago, criminal liability for directors or persons with management authority who cause a firm to engage in cartel conduct was introduced in South Africa by way of amendments to the Competition Act.

The introduction of criminal liability caught most of the South African competition law community off-guard, including the competition authorities, despite the relevant legislative provisions having been drafted and presented to Parliament for approval in 2009.

A major reason why there was such a delay in the enactment of the relevant legislation were concerns raised about the practicality and legality in enforcing the criminal liability provisions, at least in the manner currently drafted. These concerns, however, were never addressed and the Minister of Economic Development, Minister Patel, proceeded to bring into effect the criminalising provisions. The Minister has openly taken a view that current administrative penalties, which to date have been the most prominent form of sanctions imposed on firms for engaging in cartel conduct, do not provide a sufficient deterrent.

Criminal sanctions are, however, by nature a rather retributive liability, and there have been limited instances in which firms that have previously found to have contravened the Competition Act are repeat offenders. Administrative penalties coupled with reputational damage would appear to be a substantial deterrent.

Regardless, the sentiments of Minister Patel were recently echoed by the head of the National Prosecuting Authority, Shaun Abrahams, who recently indicated that anti-corruption task team (ACTT) has been briefed to treat ‘collusion’ in the same vein as corruption. The ACTT was formulated in 2010 to target high profile cases of corruption.

While it is understood that the Competition Commission (SACC) and the National Prosecuting Authority (NPA) having been working on a memorandum of understanding between the two enforcement agencies for over a year, it appears that such a MoU is still some way off from being finalised.

It is not yet clear whether the NPA envisages a more active role in cartel investigations with a view to institute criminal proceedings in terms of the Competition Act, or whether Mr Abrahams envisages holding those accountable by other pieces of anti-corruption legislation such as the Prevention and Combatting of Corrupt Activities Act (PACCA).

Mr Abrahams has indicated that he has been trying to set up a meeting with the Commissioner of the South Africa Competition Commission, Tembinkosi Bonakele, in order to discuss recent investigations by the SACC, most notably in the banking sector.

Of particular interest is that the Black Empowerment Forum (BEF) had laid criminal charges at the South African Police against Citibank following Citibank’s R69 million settlement agreement with the SACC. The BEF had indicated that they would write to the President and the NPA in an effort to elevate and expedite this case.

The recent banking referrals have been politically charged with many of the view that there has been political interference in the manner in which the banking investigation has been handled. A number of reports have linked the BEF which was allegedly only established in April 2017, to the President’s son, Edward Zuma.

This does raise queries as to the motivation behind the BEF’s criminal complaint and also whether it was the BEF’s criminal complaint that has sparked Mr Abrahams’ recent comments.

The timing of the BEF criminal complaint and Mr Abrahams’ expressed interest in pursuing cartelists for criminal liability, the allegations of political interference in the banking referrals and the lack of any formal arrangement between the SACC and the NPA regarding the enforcement of the criminal sanctions (as far as we are aware) may all be unrelated issues. This, however, seems doubtful.

The risks of seeking antitrust leniency

‘Excusing yourself from the dinner table’ – the risk in applying for immunity in terms of the Competition Act

By Mitchell Brooks, AAT guest author

cutlery (1).jpg

After reading David Lewis’ ‘Thieves at the Dinner Table’, a must read for any aspiring competition lawyer, Lewis refers to his negotiations with various cartel members as the head of the Competition Commission. Highlighting that anticompetitive conduct essentially robs the consumer of competitive pricing, hence the reference to thieves, and often this is done during informal dinners between top execs.

The question begs, what are some of the inherent risks in applying for immunity for contravening the Competition Act (“the Act”) and, in essence, excusing yourself from the dinner table.

In Brief

For purposes of this discussion, the composition of the Competition process can be described as follows:

  • The Competition Commission (“the Commission”) investigates anticompetitive conduct in contravention of the Act
  • The Commission then refers the potential perpetrator to the Competition Tribunal (“the Tribunal”);
  • The Tribunal adjudicates the matter and determines whether the Act is contravened and whether a fine is imposed.
  • In order for the Commission to investigate a potential perpetrator, either an outside party (like you and I) must submit a complaint to the Commission or the Commission must initiate a complaint itself.

What is the Corporate Leniency Policy “CLP”?

The CLP is a mechanism utilised by the Commission to uncover cartel practices, the most notorious form being price fixing. The CLP is a policy developed by the Commission and possesses no legal status. Rather, it is an expression of how the Commission will handle leniency applications. In brief, the CLP provides for the granting of “immunity” by the Commission to perpetrators who contravene the Competition Act. However, the CLP operates on a “first to the door” principle meaning that only the first member of the cartel to come clean will qualify for immunity. However, in my humble opinion this principle might not find much support in the context of hub-and-spoke collusion whereby the supplier in the upstream market facilitates collusion between competitors in the downstream market (an increasing phenomenon globally). In other words, is it acceptable that the facilitator qualifies for immunity despite being the orchestrator of the collusion?

What does immunity entail?

According to the CLP, “immunity” means that a successful applicant (otherwise a perpetrator) will not be subject to adjudication or a fine. In turn, “adjudication” entails a referral of a contravention of a chapter two provision (cartel conduct for example) by the Commission. However, Wallace JA in AgriWire (Agri Wire (Pty) Ltd and Another v Commissioner of the Competition Commission and Others (660/2011) [2012] ZASCA 134) stressed that immunity is a much broader concept insofar as the successful applicant would not be referred to the Tribunal along with the other cartel members. In essence, an agreement is concluded between the Commission and the applicant to not refer the applicant to the Tribunal. In other words, the Tribunal has no discretion to impose a fine and the Tribunal does not grant a consent order in terms of the Act (my emphasis added).

What are the risks involved?

Higher fines

First, the applicant is still exposed to adjudication despite not being subject to the discretion of the Tribunal. If the Commission decides against referring a complaint brought by an outside party, the outside party may refer the complaint to the Tribunal itself and bypass the requirement that the Commission make a referral.

Furthermore, if the Commission decides against taking a self-initiated complaint further, nothing in the Competition Act prevents an outside party from submitting a new complaint and referring the matter themselves. This means that there is still a risk of a higher fine being imposed on the perpetrator. In order to achieve greater certainty, the applicant should seek a Consent Order by the Tribunal, which will ensure no outside party may refer the matter for adjudication. This Consent Order should reduce the risk of a fine, greater than the agreed amount as per the immunity agreement, being imposed.

Civil damages

Second, the CLP does not provide leniency against civil damages, however the process as explained in Agriwire creates the perception that immunity is granted against civil claims as well. This perception is apparent in Premier Foods v NormanManoim 2015 (SCA).

In brief, Premier Foods received immunity for its involvement in the notorious bread cartel. Subsequently, private parties sought civil damages. However, section 65(6) of the Competition Act only allows civil damages claims if the party is found in contravention of the Act. A certificate was issued by the Tribunal on the basis that Premier Foods’ conduct had been referred to the Tribunal and thus a finding was made. However, the SCA in Premier Foods disagreed with this finding, instead the SCA held that Premier Foods was not a party to proceedings in the Tribunal, it had not been referred and therefore the certificate was unlawful. As a result, the private parties were barred from a civil claim.

Therefore, according to Premier Foods, a successful applicant would not be exposed to civil damages because there can be no finding against a perpetrator who is not referred to the Tribunal. In summary, the granting of immunity guards the perpetrator against a civil damages claim, even though the CLP’s objective is not to prevent civil damages.

Contrary to the perception created by this unfortunate precedent, successful applicants are arguably still exposed to civil damages by means of a section 58(1)(a)(v) declaration by the Tribunal that the Act was contravened despite the granting of leniency. Nothing in the Act suggests that a complaint procedure be followed in order to obtain a declaration. A private party should be able to approach the Tribunal to ask for a declaration that the Act was contravened based on the immunity agreement, which will not amount to an adjudication as per Judge Wallace’s interpretation but will still amount to a finding. Although there have been no cases relying on 58(1)(a)(v) since Premier Foods, nothing suggests that this avenue cannot be re-opened.

Criminal prosecution

Lastly, a new amendment to the Companies Act provides for criminal liability against directors who engage in cartel conduct. The CLP and the Competition Act are completely silent on the impact of the CLP on criminal liability. It might well be possible for a managing director to be exposed to criminal prosecution despite the granting of immunity to the perpetrating company. Therefore, the directors would need to communicate with the National Prosecuting Authority and coordinate accordingly.

Conclusion

In light of the above, the CLP will be less effective until the above uncertainties are addressed and it is advisable that when one is faced with cartel conduct, it is important that one seek professional legal advice due to the complexity of the immunity application process.

Pan-African Antitrust Round-Up: Mauritius to Egypt & Tunisia (in)to COMESA

A spring smorgasbord of African competition-law developments

As AAT reported in late February, it is not only the COMESA Competition Commission (CCC), but also the the Egyptian antitrust authorities, which now have referred the heads of the Confederation of African Football (CAF) to the Egyptian Economic Court for competition-law violations relating to certain exclusive marketing & broadcasting rights.  In addition, it has been reported that the Egyptian Competition Authority (ECA) has also initiated prosecution of seven companies engaged in alleged government-contract bid rigging in the medical supply field, relating to hospital supplies.

Nigeria remains, for now, one of the few powerhouse African economies without any antitrust legislation (as AAT has reported on here, here, here and here).

But, notes Andreas Stargard, an antitrust attorney with Primerio Ltd., “this status quo is possibly about to change: still waiting for the country’s Senate approval and presidential sign-off, the so-called Federal Competition and Consumer Protection Bill of 2016 recently made it past the initial hurdle of receiving sufficient votes in the lower House of Representatives.  Especially in light of the Nigerian economy’s importance to trade in the West African sphere, swift enactment of the bill would be a welcome step in the right direction.”

The global trend in competition law towards granting immunity to cartel whistleblowers has now been embraced by the Competition Commission of Mauritius (CCM), but with a twist: in a departure from U.S. and EU models, which usually do not afford amnesty to the lead perpetrators of hard-core antitrust violations, the CCM will also grant temporary immunity (during the half-year period from March 1 until the end of August 2017) not only to repentant participants but also to lead initiators of cartels, under the country’s Leniency Programme.

The Executive Director of the CCM, Deshmuk Kowlessur, is quoted in the official agency statement as follows:

‘The policy worldwide including Mauritius, regarding leniency for cartel is that the initiators of cartel cannot benefit from leniency programmes and get immunity from or reduction in fines. The amnesty for cartel initiatorsis a one-off opportunity for cartel initiators to benefit from immunity or up to 100% reduction in fines as provided for under the CCM’s leniency programme. The amnesty is a real incentive for any enterprise to end its participation in a cartel. In many cases it is not clear for the cartel participant itself as to which participant is the initiator. The participants being unsure whether they are an initiator finds it too risky to disclose the cartel and apply for leniency. The amnesty provides this unique window of 6 months where such a cartel participant can apply and benefit from leniency without the risk of seeing its application rejected on ground of it being an initiator.’

 

COMESA Competition Commission logoFinally, COMESA will grow from 19 to 20 member states, welcoming Tunisia at the upcoming October 2017 summit: the official statement notes that “Tunisia first applied for observer status in COMESA in 2005 but the matter was not concluded. In February, 2016 the country formally wrote to the Secretary General making inquiries on joining COMESA. This set in motion the current process towards its admission. once successfully concluded, Tunisia will become the 20[th] member of COMESA.”

This means that within 6 months of accession to the Common Market, Tunisia’s business community will be bound by the competition regulations (including merger control) enforced by the CCC.  Speaking of the CCC, the agency also recently entered into a Memorandum of Understanding with the Mauritian CCM on March 24, facilitating inter-agency coordination.  In addition, the Zimbabwean Competition and Tariff Commission (CTC) will host a national sensitisation workshop on COMESA competition policy on May 16, 2017 in Harare, purportedly as a result of “over 50 transactions involving cross-border mergers notified” to the CCC involving the Zimbabwean market.  “The main objective of the national workshop is to raise awareness among the key stakeholders and business community in Zimbabwe with regards to the provisions and implementation of COMEA competition law,” the CTC noted in a statement.

 

South Africa: Dawn Raids on fresh produce markets

By AAT Senior Contributor, Michael-James Currie

The South African Competition Commission (SACC) conducted yet another set of dawn raids, this time on the premises of nine of South Africa’s largest fresh produce market agents.

SAgrocery.jpgThe agents raided, which had operations at the Tshwane Market in Pretoria and the Joburg Market in Johannesburg, include the Botha Roodt Group (Botha Roodt); Subtropico (Pty) Ltd (Subtropico); RSA Group (Pty) Ltd (RSA Group); Dapper Market Agents (Pty) Ltd (Dapper); DW Fresh Produce CC (DW Fresh); Farmers Trust CC (Farmers Trust); Noordvaal Market Agents (Pty) Ltd (Noordvaal); Marco Fresh Produce Market Agency (Marco); and Wenpro Market Agents CC (Wenpro).

Although South Africa has about 30 fresh produce markets agents, the 6 largest agents allegedly account for approximately 80% of the fresh produce intermediaries. This means that the SACC included 3 agents in its raid which would not ordinarily be regarded as ‘large agents’.

The raid, according to the SACC’s media release, follows from a complaint which the SACC received from the Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries. The media release alleges that the agents engaged in prohibited cartel conduct, in contravention of Section 4(1)(b) of the South African Competition Act, in that they:

  • entered into an agreement and/or engaged in a concerted practice to fix the price and trading conditions for the supply of freshly produced fruits and vegetables in South Africa;
  • are involved in prohibited coordinated activities aimed at undercutting the prices charged by smaller intermediaries by charging way below the market price for certain agreed periods of a trading day;
  • keep their prices unsustainably low during these periods where after they (by agreement) quickly increase prices significantly as soon as the smaller agents run out of stock. Accordingly, certain volumes of fresh produce are sold during the late hours of trading with the sole aim of manipulating prices;
  • further make decisions regarding the actual timing of the price increases; and
  • reserve certain fresh produce grades for particular buyers, therefore, engaging in price discrimination based on the identity of buyers.

These agents facilitate the selling of fresh produce on behalf of farmers, for a commission (which rate they have allegedly also fixed over the years), to wholesalers, retailers and hawkers. Accordingly, the alleged conduct is considered particularly harmful as it affects the most vulnerable households. Additionally, SACC Commissioner Tembinkosi Bonakele stated that “…cartel activities in this sector serve to keep out emerging black farmers and agents out of the market. It is for these reasons that this sector ranks high in our priority list, and cartels, big or small, will be rooted out”.

Notably, the SACC in its statement indicated that the alleged conduct is believed to be ongoing. This may raise serious issues for the agents concerned as the SACC has not yet clarified how they intend on dealing with ongoing conduct for purposes of constituting an offence under section 73A of the Competition Amendment Act (In terms of the section 73A, any director or person with management authority may be held criminally liable for ‘causing’ or ‘knowingly acquiescing’ in cartel conduct). Accordingly, how this uncertainty will impact on the SACC’s corporate leniency policy remains to be seen. For more info on this, see South African Competition Commission… More Dawn Raids!

In conclusion, the timing of this dawn raid coincides with the SACC’s recent (ongoing) Market Inquiry into the Grocery Retail Market Sector. However, to what extent, if any, the Market Inquiry has had any relevance or impact on this dawn raid is unclear and remains a matter of mere speculation.