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.

South Africa: Competition Appeal Court Sends Strong “Passive Participation” Message

Competitors Beware of Industry Gatherings

By Charl van der Merwe

On 19 December 2016, the South African Competition Appeal Court (CAC) handed down judgment in the Omnico (Pty) Ltd; Cool Heat Agencies (Pty) Ltd vs The Competition Commission & Others matter.

The judgment details an application brought by two respondents who sought to challenge the Competition Tribunal’s finding that their participation at industry association meetings amounted to cartel conduct, despite the appellants’ contention that they did not actively participate in any anticompetitive discussions and were effectively passive participants at the meetings.

The CAC had to decide on whether or not silent participation by firms at an industry  meeting or forum of competitors where cartel activity was discussed amounts to a contravention in terms of section 4(1)(b)(i) of the Competition Act, Act 89 of 1998 (“the Act”).

south_africaSection 4 of the Act provides that “An agreement between, or concerted practice by, firms, or a decision by an association of firms, is prohibited if it is between parties in a horizontal relationship and if – (a) it has the effect of substantially preventing, or lessening, competition in a market, unless a party to the agreement, concerted practice, or decision can prove that any technological, efficiency or other pro-competitive gain resulting from it outweighs that effect”.

The Appellants are wholesalers that supply bicycle and bicycle accessories to the retail trade. The appellants attended a series of industry meetings together with various retailers and wholesalers of bicycles and bicycle accessories to discuss ways in which retailers could increase retail margins. This the CAC found was achieved by the wholesalers agreeing to increase the Recommended Retail Price, (“RRP”) for the various products sold.

In this particular case, the RRP increase was scheduled to take place on the 1st of October.

Though the appellants both increased their RRP on the effective date, the crux of the matter and the point the appellants placed great reliance on was the contention that they never actively participated in the industry meetings.

smoke_filled_room_smallThe CAC in dismissing the appeal held that it was clear that there was a cartel and that due to the complex and clandestine nature of cartel conduct, the Commission merely had to show sufficient evidence that in its entirety proves that the appellants were part of that cartel. The Commission was not required to scrutinise and evaluate each and every activity or discussion at the various meetings, and it was up to the appellants to put forward rebuttal evidence to establish that their participation at the meetings lacked any intention on their part to be a party to the collusive conduct.

Andreas Stargard, a competition lawyer with Primerio Ltd., notes that, “importantly, the CAC confirmed that the standard of proof in competition law cases is lower than that of contract and common law — a wink and a nod may in the smoke-filled-room, under the right circumstances, be sufficient proof to show collusion among competitors.  To prove a cartel, there is no need to apply the rigid principles of contract law, determining whether a meeting of the minds was reached, or to prove formal offer and acceptance in order to show that a collusive agreement was reached.”

Furthermore, he says,“the CAC found that the evidence put forward by the Commission need only be ‘sufficiently precise, consistent and convincing’ — not necessarily the ‘clear and convincing‘ evidentiary standard generally required in terms of common law.”

In addition, the CAC noted that there is no need for a single pressing piece of conduct to show that an anticompetitive arrangement has been entered into, but that the authorities will consider the cumulative effect of conduct whether active or passive in order to determine whether, on a holistic approach, the respondents had entered into a collusive agreement.

The CAC held that although the appellants did not express agreement at the meeting, the appellants did not ‘publicly’ distance themselves from the collusive proposals put forward at the meetings.

Accordingly, the CAC found that:

  • there was consensus reached at the meeting and the appellants failed to distance themselves from the discussions;
  • neither appellants gave any indication that they disagreed with the consensus reached at the meeting nor that they would not proceed along the lines as agreed during the meeting;
  • that at the very least (without even increasing their prices on the effective date) the appellants would have passively benefitted from the conduct resulting from that collusive arrangement; and
  • that neither of the appellants placed any evidence before the CAC to prove that they priced independently.

In conclusion, therefore, it is clear that firms who attend industry association meetings, forums or the like, are obliged to take active steps to denounce any anticompetitive discussions which may have taken place at such meetings.

Once a firm is party to any anticompetitive discussions, the onus rests on that firm to actively distance itself from such discussions – this is so irrespective of whether a collusive arrangement is implemented or not. It is not clear what steps need to be taken to satisfactorily distance oneself from such discussions, although it must be a ‘public’ denouncement. This could be interpreted as indicating that firms may be obliged to report to the authorities any collusive arrangements which they wish to actively distance themselves from.

New Zambian Settlement Guidelines: A Risky Reprieve

By AAT Senior Contributor, Michael-James Currie & Mweshi Mutuna, Pr1merio competition advocate (Zambia)

The Zambian Competition and Consumer Protection Commission (‘CCPC’) has recently published draft settlement guidelines (‘Draft Guidelines’) for respondents who have allegedly engaged in conduct in contravention of the domestic Competition and Consumer Protection Act (‘Act’).

zambiaThe Draft Guidelines have been published in addition to the ‘Leniency Programme’ as well as the ‘Fines Guidelines’ published earlier this year (as well as the 2015 Merger Guidelines), and essentially sets out a framework within which respondent parties may engage the CCPC for purposes of reaching a settlement agreement for alleged contraventions of the Act.

Notably, the Draft Guidelines will be binding on the CCPC which is an important aspect of ensuring a transparent and objective approach to settlement negotiations. Furthermore, the Draft Guidelines emphasise that respondents should be fully informed of the case against them prior to settling. In this regard, the Draft Guidelines provide for an initial stage of the settlement negotiations (essentially an expression of interest) which follows from a formal request by a firm expressing an interest to settle.

Should the CCPC decide to proceed with settlement negotiations, the CCPC must, within 21 days, provide the respondent party with information as to the nature of the case against the respondent. This includes disclosing the alleged facts and the classification of those facts, the gravity and duration of the alleged conduct, the attribution of liability (which we discuss further below) and the evidence relied on by the CCPC to support the complaint.

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The authors, Mr. Currie & Ms. Mutuna

The purpose of disclosing these facts to a respondent is to afford a respondent the opportunity to meaningfully consider and evaluate the case against it in order to make an informed decision whether to settle or not.

Assuming that an expression of interest in settling the matter is established by both parties, the CCPC will then proceed by requesting that the respondent provide a formal “settlement submission” within 15 days of the CCPC’s request. Included in the settlement submission, must be a clear and unequivocal acknowledgement of liability (which includes a summary of the pertinent facts, duration and the respondent’s participation in the anticompetitive conduct) and the maximum settlement quantum which the respondent is prepared to pay by way of an administrative penalty.

Should the CCPC accept the settlement submission, the CCPC will then commence with drafting and ultimately publishing a statement of objections (‘SO’) which essentially captures the material terms of the settlement submission. This is largely a necessary procedural step although the respondent party may object to the SO should it not correctly record the terms of the settlement agreement.

Following the publication of the SO, the CCPC will, subject to any challenges to the SO, proceed formally to make the settlement agreement a final decision as required by the Act.

Risky Business?

The above framework appears to be relatively straightforward and balanced, assuming that the parties in fact do reach a settlement agreement. The position is somewhat different in the event that settlement negotiations breakdown, particularly if the negotiations are already at a relatively advanced stage.

Most notably, settlement negotiations in terms of the Draft Guidelines are not conduced on a “without prejudice” basis. To the contrary, the Draft Guidelines states that the CCPC has the right to adopt a SO which does not reflect the parties’ settlement submission. In this event, the normal procedures for investigating and prosecuting a complaint as set out in the Act will apply.

In the event that the CCPC elects not to accept a settlement submission submitted by a respondent, the Draft Guidelines specifically state that “the acknowledgements provided by the parties in the settlement submission shall not be withdrawn and the Commission reserves the right to use the information submitted for its investigation”.

This paragraph is controversial as it places a substantial risk on a party making a settlement submission with no guarantee that the settlement proffer will be accepted by the CCPC, while at the same time, the respondent party exposes itself by making admissions which may be used against it in the course of a normal complaint investigation and determination by the CCPC.

Whether or not the financial incentive to respondents would entice a respondent to, nonetheless, engage in settlement discussions in terms of the Draft Guidelines is sufficient, only time will tell. In this regard, however, the Draft Guidelines state that a firm who settles with the CCPC prior to the matter being referred to the Board will be limited to a maximum penalty of up to 4% of the firm’s annual turnover. Should the firm settle after the matter has been referred to the Board, the maximum penalty will be capped at 7% of the firm’s annual turnover.

Multi-Party Settlements: the More the Better?

A further interesting and rather novel aspect to the Draft Guidelines is the provision made for tripartite settlement negotiations. In this regard, the Draft Guidelines cater for a rather unusual mechanism by which multiple respondents in relation to the same investigation may approach the CCPC for purposes of reaching a settlement agreement.

Although referred to as “tripartite” negotiations, the Draft Guidelines state that when the CCPC initiates proceedings against two or more respondents, the CCPC will inform a respondent of the other respondents to the complaint. Should the respondent parties collectively wish to enter into settlement negotiations, the respondents should jointly appoint a duly authorised representative to act on their behalf. In the event that the respondent parties do settle with the CCPC, the fact that the respondents were represented by a jointly appointed representative will not prejudice them insofar as the CCPC making any finding as to the attribution of liability between the respondents is concerned.

While joint representation may be suitable in the case of merger-related offences (which may have been what was envisaged by the drafters hence the reference to “tripartite” negotiations), we believe that it is hard to imagine that the drafters anticipated that, should respondents to a cartel be invited to settle the complaint against them, the cartelists would then be required to embark on further collaborative efforts: this time to engage collectively in formulating a settlement strategy and decide how they are ultimately going to ‘split the bill’ should a settlement agreement be reached.

The issue of a multi-party settlement submission is further complicated in the event that a settlement proffer is not accepted by the CCPC following a multiparty settlement submission. As mentioned above, the settlement submission must contain an admission of liability which, in the case of cartel conduct, would invariably amount to the parties to the settlement proposal admitting to engaging in cartel conduct by fixing prices or allocating markets, by way of example, between each other.

Although, the Draft Guidelines is a welcome endeavour to provide respondents with a transparent and objective framework to utilise when engaging with the CCPC for purposes of reaching a settlement, the uncertainty and risk which flows from a rejection of the settlement proffer may prove to be an impediment in achieving the very objectives of the Draft Guidelines.

In this regard, we understand that the CCPC is currently considering revised guidelines which hopefully address the concerns raised above.

 

Don’t wait for leniency… Lipimile signals delays

COMESA Chief Warns of Delayed Implementation of Leniency Policy

George Lipimile, CEO, COMESA Competition Commission

George Lipimile, Director, COMESA Competition Commission

In an interview with Concurrences, CCC Director George Lipimile stated cautiously that, while the agency had engaged a consultant to help it craft a regional leniency programme, it still had to “be discussed in detail with Member States. Given the different legal systems and the feedback coming from the consultations with Member States so far, this may take some time.”

Thus, “while there is no amnesty programme visible on the near-term horizon, the CCC’s novel cartel enforcement push poses particular concerns for undertakings operating in the COMESA region,” says Andreas Stargard, attorney with Africa advisory firm Pr1merio.  “Director Lipimile has expressed his agency’s plan — jointly with the World Bank organisation — to launch a project designed to combat cartel activity.  They propose to do so first, it seems, by piggy-backing off of other enforcers’ previous investigations, such as the South African Competition Commission’s cartel cases, and analysing whether those instances of foreign collusion could have harmful effects on the COMESA economies.”