Today, the East African reported on a stunning admission by the Chief Executive Officer of Kenyan mobile telco heavyweight Safaricom (itself no stranger to AAT telco competition reporting and proprietor of the massive M-Pesa mobile money network across East Africa). In the article, fittingly entitled “Safaricom rules out price war in Ethiopian market“, the business report quotes Mr. Peter Ndegwa as saying:
“From a pricing perspective, our pricing strategy is generally to be either in line or just slightly at a premium, but not to go for any price competition. The intention is actually generally to be closer to what the main operator is offering, especially on voice.”
Safaricom’s senior exec made his curious confession on a recent investor call. Says Andreas Stargard, a competition attorney with Primerio: “On these investor conference calls, there are usually several analysts and reporters on the line, listening in, and they commonly are also recorded. This would mean there exist clear prima facie evidence and several witnesses to these statements, as reported by the East African source.” He adds: “It remains to be seen whether any of the several competent authorities will investigate Safaricom’s express statement of a de facto ‘non-compete’ between the Ethiopian incumbent and the Kenyan upstart,” with the former (Ethiotel) boasting 54m subscribers, as opposed to the latter’s mere 1m users in-country.
When asked which government authorities would be authorized to investigate Safaricom’s “no price war” policy expressed by Mr. Ndegwa, according to the newspaper, Mr. Stargard noted that, beyond the domestic Ethiopian telecoms regulator, there existed at least two (2) competent antitrust bodies with jurisdictional authority: “For any potentially anti-competitive conduct occurring in Ethiopia that may have a cross-border effect (as mobile telephony usually does — especially with a foreign, here Kenyan, operator involved as well), I could see either the Ethiopian Trade Competition and Consumer Protection Authority (“TCCPA”) or the supra-national COMESA Competition Commission (“CCC“) under Dr. Mwemba’s reinvigorated leadership stepping in.”
As the latter has made clear in several public pronouncements recently, the CCC is poised to continue its non-merger enforcement streak, that is: investigating and prosecuting restrictive business practices, such as cartels and cartel-like behaviour. “We call it, CCC 2.0,” Stargard adds half-jokingly. He notes that both the TCCPA and CCC have all the necessary legislative instruments in hand to proceed with a preliminary investigation on the basis of the above quotes published by the East African:
In Ethiopia, the TCCPA could argue that “expressly avoiding a price war” is possibly in violation 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”.
For COMESA, the CCC has conceivably two legislative tools at its disposal: First, Art. 16 of the Regulations (“Restrictive Business Practices”) prohibits all agreements between undertakings, decisions by associations of undertakings and concerted practices which (i) may affect trade between member states, and (ii) have as their object or effect the prevention, restriction or distortion of competition. Provision is then made (in Art. 19(4)) for the Article to be “declared inapplicable” if the agreement, decision or concerted practice gives rise to efficiencies and the like. Importantly, even though Art. 16 also applies to by-object practices, provision is made for an efficiency defence. Second, the CCC could resort to Art. 19 (“Prohibited Practices”), which focusses on “hard-core” cartel-like practices. Art. 19(2) provides that Art. 19 applies to agreements, arrangements and understandings, while sub-sections (1) and (3) provide that it is an offence for (actual or potential competitors) to fix prices, to big-rig or tender collusively, to allocate markets or customers, and the like.
Safaricom and its domestic competitor (the government-owned, former absolute monopolist, Ethiotel) may of course offer — preemptively or otherwise — a pro-competitive explanation for their alleged “non-compete” agreement. However, in attorney Stargard’s view, such defences must be well-founded, non-pretextual, and they would be well-advised to have contemporaneous business records supporting any such defences at the ready, should an antitrust investigation indeed ensue.
“Indeed, it may appear to the authorities that Mr. Ndegwa’s quoted concession of ‘We won’t compete on price’ may be a sign of capitulation or at least a ‘truce’ between Safaricom and Ethiotel,” he surmises, “because as recently as mid-December , the incumbent monopolist [Ethiotel] had threatened legal action against the Kenyan newcomer, claiming that Safaricom had ‘harrassed’ the incumbent’s customers and caused loss of service due to its actions.” An incoming competitor’s attempt at avoiding a civil lawsuit between it and would-be competitors would, of course, not constitute a legal defence to forming a (formal or informal) non-compete agreement on pricing, he adds.
“We have extensive experience counseling clients on how to successfully — and aggressively — defend against accusations of price-fixing, whether the allegations involve tacit collusion or express price or market-allocation cartel behaviour. While the parties here would likely not have a formalistic statute-of-limitations argument at their disposal, given the recent nature of the conduct at issue, I could imagine there being eminently reasonable ways of showing the harmless nature of the conduct underlying the, perhaps misleading, investor-call statements made by the executive,” he concludes.
CAC ruled in favour of Tourvest nine years after allegedly collusive tender for retail space at Johannesburg airport took place
By Jemma Muller and Nicola Taljaard
In a recent judgment, the South African Competition Appeal Court (“CAC”) provided clarity on the characterization inquiry necessitated by section 4(1)(b) of the Competition Act 89 of 1998. The judgment particularly elucidated the way in which the requirement that the parties must be in an actual or potential horizontal relationship at the time that the offence in issue is committed, must be construed.
The CAC set aside and replaced the Competition Tribunal’s (“Tribunal”) decision wherein it found that Tourvest Holdings (Pty) Ltd (“Tourvest”) was guilty of collusive tendering or price fixing under section 4(1)(b) in relation to tenders issued by Airports Company South Africa (“ACSA”).
The CAC found that Tourvest and the Siyanisiza Trust (“Trust”) agreed to cooperate instead of competing on a tender issued by ACSA by concluding a Memorandum of Understanding (“MoU”) before submitting their separate bids in relation to tenders issued by ACSA. In terms of the MoU, Tourvest agreed to provide the Trust with the expertise, management infrastructure, technology and training that the Trust would require to bid.
Despite the historically vertical relationship between the parties, the Tribunal found that the parties had become actual competitors by submitting separate bids for the same tender (i.e., horizontality by bidding) and potential competitors under the MoU, and alternatively, that the parties became potential competitors by virtue of holding themselves out as competitors submitting bids against one another (i.e., by creating the illusion of competition).
Before scrutinizing the Tribunal’s specific findings in relation to horizontality, the CAC found that the Tribunal misdirected itself by embarking on a characterization inquiry which failed to recognize the character of the parties’ relationship absent the impugned agreement – which relationship was clearly vertical in nature. The CAC explained that, if absent the agreement the parties were not potential competitors, then the agreement could not have removed a potential competitor from the market and could also not have harmed competition, as there was none to start with. The CAC based its reasoning on the purpose of section 4(1)(b) of the Competition Act, which stated as being to penalize ‘conduct which is so egregious that no traditional defence is permitted’. Accordingly, its purpose is not to capture conduct which, correctly characterized, does not harm competition.
With regard to the Tribunal’s specific findings of horizontality, the CAC found that:
The submission of separate bids for the same tender could not in and of itself bring the impugned conduct within the ambit of section 4(1)(b);
The wording of section 4(1)(b) is clear in that it requires the parties to be in an actual or potential horizontal relationship. Section 4(1)(b) cannot be interpreted to infer strict liability on parties by virtue of them ‘pretending’ to be a competitor (i.e., horizontality by illusion). If parties are ‘ineligible’ to bid as competitors by virtue of their trading environment, they may not be construed as potential competitors. In casu, the Trust was not eligible to participate in the tender as it did not meet the tender criteria; and
It is illogical and contrary to the provisions of section 4(1)(b) to conclude that the parties could become competitors in the future by virtue of the tender’s enterprise development purpose. The potential to compete cannot be rationalized from the impugned agreement itself. Rather, it is the (horizontal-or-not) nature of the parties’ relationship at the time the offence in issue is committed, which must be assessed.
Namibian Competition Watchdog Probes Alleged Collusion Between Law Firm and Bank
Namibia’s Competition Commission (the “NaCC”) has begun a Section 33 investigation into the alleged exclusive-dealing arrangement in relation to property conveyancing between Bank Windhoek and the domestic law firm of Dr Weder, Kauta and Hoveka, which has offices in 4 cities and touts itself as being “widely respected and recognised for its professionalism and excellence in service provision.”
The purported deal requires those applying for a loan from Bank Windhoek to use the law firm’s conveyancing services, thereby allegedly excluding other attorneys, according to the NaCC’s formal statement announcing the investigation, which resulted from an apparent private complaint brought to the NaCC: “The agreement and its maintained exclusivity is said to limit competition and forecloses other independent service providers in the relevant market, which is provisionally defined as the provision of conveyancing services to Bank Windhoek-financed property transactions,” in violation of section 23 of the Namibian Competition Act. It is reported that the law firm has denied knowledge of the existence of any such agreement with the banking institution and has sought a copy of the document.
Three years after an intricate East-African antitrust saga involving global European and Asian paint manufacturers, the industry is in the region’s competition-law news again.
By Andreas Stargard
Upon receiving allegations, in 2018, of cartel-like practices among paint manufacturers and undisclosed distributors, the Competition Authority of Kenya (CAK) launched an investigation into the companies suspected of breaching competition rules. These investigations later uncovered that four firms, namely: Crown Paints, Basco Products Limited, Kansai Plascon and Galaxy Paints were deemed guilty of collusion and price-fixing, subjecting the purchasers to unreasonably high prices for various paint brands. The CAK has since revealed its findings to the Kenyan Parliament.
Crown Paints has a flagship brand called DuraCoat, which includes paint products for both interior and exterior finishing (painting and waterproofing). Dura Brands’ exposed collusion with the other three companies sparked fears that consumers had been buying these products at artificially inflated prices. This is particularly significant given that Crown Paints is listed on the Nairobi Securities Exchange and is a heavyweight in the local Kenyan paints market, with further regional subsidiaries in Uganda and Tanzania (all COMESA member states).
Ruth Mosoti, Primerio Ltd.’s Kenyan competition practitioner, notes that the “CAK ultimately found that all four companies were in direct contravention of section 31 of the Competition Act, which addresses restrictive trade practices that prohibit companies from colluding with one another in order to determine product prices, as well as control when and to whom they will offer pricing discounts. The CAK alleges that these are all anti-competitive behaviors that are to the detriment of the consumer as well as other, outside competitors.”
In its Annual Report to Parliament, the CAK noted: “The investigations with respect to three other paint manufacturers and distributors were concluded in July 2019 with the Authority making a preliminary finding that the parties were involved in an anti-competitive agreement on prices, discount structure and transport charges.”
In line with section 36(c) and (d) of the Act, the CAK is entitled to impose financial penalties “to remedy or reverse the infringement or the effects thereof” which may span “up to ten percent of the immediately preceding year’s gross annual turnover in Kenya of the undertaking or undertakings in question”.
Of the four Companies, Basco Products Limited was the only company that did not challenge the CAK’s preliminary ruling and paid a penalty amount of Sh20.799 million. The company further agreed to abstain from committing any similar breaches in the future. While the other subject companies initially appealed the decision handed down by the CAK, AfricanAntitrust.com editorial staff have now learned that up to 3 of the accused firms have opted to settle, having withdrawn their appeals.
It is also pivotal to note that on the 25th of February 2021, the COMESA Competition Commission (CCC) issued a cautionary note specifically pertaining to the consequences of forming artificial barriers to free trade, such as collusive practices and other horizontal agreements hindering competition.
The CCC — in its recent bid to become a fully-fledged competition enforcement agency that investigates not only merger activity (as it had done primarily so far) but also pursues hard-core antitrust offences such as cartels — made reference to Article 16 of the Regulations, prohibiting “all agreements between undertakings, decisions by associations of undertakings and concerted practices which: (a) may affect trade between Member States; and (b) have as their object or effect the prevention, restriction or distortion of competition within the Common Market”.
The Kansai paint allegations described above would fit the bill, but we shall see what cartel matters the CCC will pursue going forward, and in which industry segments… The CCC has stated that it “…will work closely with the national competition authorities in the Member States to ensure that offenders are detected, investigated and punished”. Furthermore, there is particular focus on “hard enforcement through screening, detection, investigation and punishment of offenders”.
As of January 1st, 2021, Kenya’s competition-law enforcer, the Competition Authority of Kenya (CAK), started benefitting from its new “Informant Reward Scheme” (IRS). The IRS encourages “confidential informants” — often also referred to as “whistleblowers” — privy to inside information about antitrust offenses to come forward and report the illicit conduct to the Authority.
The IRS incentivizes informants with promises of anonymity as well as — rather modest, as we will see — monetary rewards: the CAK vows to maintain the confidentiality of the informant’s identity, and provides for up to Sh1,000,000 (approximately US$9,100 at today’s Fx rate).
Andreas Stargard, a competition lawyer active on the African continent, has delved more deeply into the CAK’s enabling “Guidelines” document, trying to ascertain the precise contours of the IRS program. He reports as follows:
AfricanAntitrust.com: “Who is eligible to participate in the IRS?”
Andreas Stargard: “What we know from the implementing Guidelines, and also from Director General Kariuki‘s speech on the IRS, is that only third parties or those individuals playing merely a remote and peripheral role in relation to the anti-competitive conduct are eligible to benefit from the IRS. This means that a 3rd-party customer, or a non-executive employee such as a secretary or copy clerk of the offending company, may report wrongdoing under the IRS.”
AAT: “What about insiders with executive authority, then?”
Stargard: “Similar to Western countries’ antitrust regimes, those individuals can still report illicit conduct by their employers, but they would have to resort to the Kenyan leniency process as opposed to the Informant Reward Scheme.”
AAT: “Understood. Are there other, similar whistleblower schemes in existence?”
Stargard: “Yes. We recently held a very timely webinar with leading international and African experts on the topic of whistleblowing, which I moderated. A recording of it is available on the web. Whistleblowing has become an important piece of the enforcement puzzle for many governmental authorities around the globe, not only on competition issues. In Kenya, specifically, President Kenyatta recently doubled the rewards for tax-fraud whistleblowers, who are now entitled to receive up to Sh5,000,000 ($45,000), and the country’s revenue service implemented the so-called iWhistle portal to allow informants to report tax fraud anonymously.”
AAT: “Speaking of money, what is your take on the amount of the offered reward under the terms of the IRS?”
Stargard: “Frankly speaking, one million Kenyan shillings is a paltry sum. I cannot comprehend how reporting a competition-law violation such as a price-fixing cartel that may cost the Kenyan economy and its consumers billions in losses is deserving of 5-times less reward than an informant reporting an individual’s tax fraud to the revenue service, which may cause significantly less injury to the government purse than an international cartel of corporates…”
AAT: “Strong words.”
Stargard: “I’m serious. Compare and contrast the meager sum of not even US$10,000 maximum IRS reward with the potential 5-year prison sentence liability for executives convicted of collusion! There is simply no comparison…”
AAT: “In a perfect world, what would you change about the Kenyan whistleblower scheme?”
Stargard: “If I had had any input into the process of devising the IRS Guidelines, I would have ensured that the maximum reward amount be commensurate with the economic harm and financial damage done by cartels — in short, I would raise the IRS reward to an un-capped straight-up percentage portion of the fines recovered by the CAK. The more, the better for everyone.”
AAT: “Do you have any parting words or final observations on the IRS program for our readers?”
Stargard: “Well, for starters, it is not too late to implement changes to the regime. The CAK (and the legislature, to the extent necessary) can easily increase the maximum reward, as I proposed earlier. I am certain that it would yield better results than the current Sh1m cap, which can easily be ‘outbid’ by an already-corrupt employer, seeking to ‘buy’ its employees’ loyalty! So, Mr. Kariuki, if you’re reading this interview, I’d strongly suggest considering an increase in the reward.
Secondly, from our international experience, we know one thing about ‘secret’ informant schemes: One key element of any successful whistleblower regime (besides ensuring adequate rewards) is the strictest maintenance of confidentiality of the informant’s identity. I realize that section ‘F’ of the Guidelines assures the public that anonymity will be guaranteed and that the CAK will ‘take utmost care to ensure that the identity of the confidential informant is not disclosed.’ However, as an attorney, I can only say that the proof is in the pudding. We will have to wait for the first proceedings pursuant to IRS-provided reports, in order to determine whether or not the whistleblowers’ anonymity will indeed be preserved successfully in practice. That said, I look forward to advising clients on the many issues that are likely going to arise from the Scheme!”
AAT: “Thank you for your time and insights on this new development!”
With Panelists Zanele Mbuyisa – Counsel PPLAAF, John Oxenham- director Primerio, Mary Inman – partner Constantine Cannon Llc, Bill Kovacic – GWU Professor and non-executive director of the UK Competition and Markets Authority, Glynnis Breytenbach – former prosecutor for the South African National Prosecuting Authority (NPA) & a member of parliament for the Democratic Alliance (DA), Johannes Stefansson – “Fish Rot” Whistleblower.
This webinar is part of a 2 part series dedicated to whistleblowing, fraud and corruption during COVID 19: the panels will include politicians, lawyers and whistleblowers. The discussion will touch on all aspects of the importance of instilling a whistleblowing regime in corporate, government and other pertinent spheres of society.
As it turns out, some savvy ‘entrepeneurs’ have been able to use competition-law enforcement on the African continent to their personal gain, namely by making misleading — if not outright false — accusations against their competitors, thereby triggering an antitrust investigation, and even causing this venerable publication to report on such. We have been made aware by the initial “target” company (now, as it turns out, the actual “victim”) of the Malawi investigation that one of its competitors in the textbook market had essentially weaponized the CFTC’s investigative powers by launching direct and indirect accusations against Mallory International that triggered the probe. In the end, the CFTC concluded that none of the purported cartel conduct actually occurred.
To be clear and to avoid any doubt: Mallory International was cleared of any misconduct allegation. The Editor has reviewed conclusive evidence of the CFTC’s closure of this investigation in August of 2018. “What remains to be seen is whether or not the agency might use its powers to pursue the perpetrators of this inherently anti-competitive attack of false accusations (which coincidentally also wasted government resources) any further,” says AAT Editor Andreas Stargard, pointing to the underlying nature of such false claims as “quintessential unfair competition that should neither enjoy immunity from prosecution nor escape government scrutiny.”
For background, in our original reporting on this case (entitled “CFTC Investigates Foreign Textbook Supplier in Cartel Probe“), we had written as follows:
In a potential first, Malawi’s Competition and Fair Trade Commission’s (CFTC) Chief Executive Officer, Ms Charlotte Malonda, recently announced that the CFTC is investigating a UK-based supplier of textbooks, Mallory International, for alleged cartel conduct. Mallory had partnered up with a local company, Maneno Books Investments, as part of a joint venture, called “Mallory International JV Maneno Enterprise”. In addition, other companies also being investigated include Jhango Publishers, South African based Pearson Education Africa, Dzuka Publishing Company and UK based Trade Wings International.
The investigation follows complaints received by the Human Rights Consultative Committee as well as a number of its constituent civil society organisations and NGOs. The allegations include price fixing and collusive tendering vis-à-vis tenders issued by the Malawian government for the supply of pupils’ text books. [Editor’s Note: “Contrary to the statements in our original article, the actual complaint by HRCC and FND alleged neither price fixing nor collusive bidding.Its main allegation was that unjustified objections were made to contract awards in Malawi, and that attempts were made to dissuade publishers from issuing authorisation letters to particular bidders. Neither of these allegations was true, and no evidence to support either of them was ever produced. The complaint was dismissed by CFTC in August 2018.”]
The Nyasa Times quoted the CFTC head as confirming that the agency had “received a few complaints about allegations of a cartel and other procurement malpractices, hence our commencement of the investigations to get the bottom of the matter.”
Based on the language of Section 50 of the Act suggests that the sanctions for committing an offence in terms of the Act requires the imposition of both a penalty and a five year prison sentence. Although not aware of any case law which has previously interpreted this provision, the wording of the Act is particularly onerous, particularly in light of the per se nature of cartel conduct.
Section 33 of the Competition and Fair Trade Act prohibits collusive tendering and bid rigging per se. Furthermore, a contravention of section 33 is an offence in terms of the Act carries with it not only the imposition of an administrative penalty, which is the greater of the financial gain generated from the collusive conduct or K500 000, but also criminal sanctions, the maximum being a prison sentence of five years, notes Andreas Stargard, a competition attorney:
“The Malawian competition enforcer, under Ms. Malonda’s leadership, has shown significant growth both in terms of bench strength and actual enforcement activity since her involvement began in 2012.”
The Act is not clear what “financial gain” means in this instance and whether the penalty is based on the entire revenue generated by the firm for the specific tender (allegedly tainted by collusion) or whether it applies only to the profit generated from the project. Furthermore, it is unclear how this would apply to a co-cartelist who did not win the tender. The Act may be interpreted that the “losing bidder” is fined the minimum amount of K500 000 which equates to appox. USD 700 (a nominal amount) while the “winner” is penalised the value of the entire tender value (which would be overly prejudicial, particularly if turnover and not profit is used as the basis for financial gain).
Although the investigation has only recently commenced and no respondent has admitted to wrong doing nor has there been a finding of wrongdoing, this will be an important case to monitor to the extent that there is an adverse finding made by the CFTC. Unless the Malawian authorities adopt a pragmatic approach to sentencing offending parties, section 50 of the Act may significantly undermine foreign investment as a literal interpretation of the Act would render Malawi one of the most high risk jurisdictions in terms of potential sanctions from a competition law perspective.
It may also result in fewer firms wishing to partner up with local firms by way of joint ventures as JV’s are a particularly high risk form of collaboration between competitors if there is no clear guidance form the authorities as to how JV’s are likely to be treated from a competition law perspective.
In antitrust circles, the term “Competitor Collaboration” may refer to quite an innocent practice, but is perhaps more often used as a euphemistic reference for good old-fashioned collusion: namely, a cartel by any other name. Antitrust enforcers around the globe attempt to harness its “good side” during the viral pandemic…
In the COVID-19 world, several competition-law enforcers, including those in the United States and in South Africa, have tried to act swiftly to create express “safe harbours” for certain types of permissible conduct between (otherwise horizontal and direct) competitors. The goal of these (usually temporary) exemptions from the strictures of antitrust prohibitions against collaboration, information exchanges, and the like, is to enable medical-supply providers to ensure that urgently-needed products and services can be delivered most expediently to the affected areas, patients, and hospitals.
In the United States, notes Andreas Stargard, an antitrust attorney, the COVID-19 pandemic has shown that the federal antitrust agencies are capable of proceeding with speed when it comes to signing off on such allowable “competitor collaborations”, which are in the best interest of facilitating an efficient health-care industry response to the crisis. The FTC and DOJ are now swiftly, within one week of the submission of a detailed request for review, sanctioning proposed cooperation agreements by firms that would otherwise compete to supply medicines or equipment. Applicants for a business-review letter (“BRL”) must provide a detailed explanation of the planned conduct, together with its rationale and expected likely effects, to the agencies.
The first of these opinion letters was issued on April 4th, 2020, under the expedited procedure to McKesson, Cardinal Health and others. It allows them to collaborate on PPE production, following the call for such action by FEMA and other federal agencies, and pursuing the coordinated response under their supervision for a limited time period (namely the duration of the crisis). What could be deemed anti-competitive effects, such as an undue price increase, output reduction or the like, is expressly excluded from the permissible conduct.
Applying the “same analytical framework” as the DOJ’s approval of the PPE-related collaboration between McKesson, Cardinal Health, Owens & Minor, Medline Industries and Henry Schein Inc., the Department’s Antitrust Division has now issued a second BRL, dated April 20th, to AmeriSource Bergen and others, approving their similarly designed scheme to distribute medicinal products jointly across the country. AmerisourceBergen sought the agency’s blessing of the proposal pursuant to the expedited review procedure outlined in the March 24thjoint FTC and DOJ guidance on health-care providers collaborating on necessary public-health initiatives, in which the dual antitrust enforcers announced their goal to answer COVID-19-related BRL requests within one week of receiving the BRL applicants’ detailed description of the proposed collaborative conduct.
Mr. Stargard counsels that those firms seeking a BRL exemption should consult with a competent antitrust specialist lawyer. He notes that the federal agencies have expressly invited providers to take advantage of the expedited BRL procedure, which is temporary in nature and only available during the time of the declared COVID-19 pandemic.
In South Africa, the South African Minster of Trade and Industry and Competition (“Minister”) has taken a similar tack, having published Regulations under Section 78 of the South African Competition Act 89 of 1998 (“Competition Act”). Unlike the U.S., however, these Regulations go well beyond the medical industry. John Oxenham, a Johannesburg-based competition lawyer, observes that “these Regulations exempt industry players in certain sectors from prosecution for conduct in contravention of Sections 4 and 5, also known as Block Exemptions.” They also apply to the prohibition of excessive pricing (and ensuring sufficient supply) by firms selling key supplies. Related to the exemption process in terms of the Competition Act are the powers of the Minister to publish directions under the recent Regulations issued under section 27 (2) of the Disaster Management Act (GN 318 of 18 March 2020). In this regard, Regulation 10(6) provides that the Minister may issue directions to “protect consumers from excessive, unfair, unreasonable or unjust pricing of goods and services during the national state of disaster; and maintain security and availability of the supply of goods and services during the national state of disaster.”
Block Exemptions have been published by the Minster in terms of section 10(10) of the Competition Act which provides that the Minister may, after consultation with the Competition Commission (SACC), issue regulations in terms of section 78, exempting a category of agreements or practices from the application of sections 4 and 5 of the Competition Act. As at the date of writing, Block Exemptions have been granted to the Healthcare Sector, the Banking Sector and Retail Property Sector.
Health Care Sector
The exemption include a range of industry players, including healthcare facilities, pharmacies, medical suppliers, medical specialist, pathologists and laboratories, and healthcare funders. The Block Exemption will similarly allow industry players to coordinate on procurement of supplies, transferring equipment and coordinating the use of staff. In effect, the Block Exemption extends and broadens the scope of the exemption enjoyed by the NHN to include state and private healthcare. While this move is certainly a welcome one to ensure that South Africa is able to effectively deal with the spread of COVID-19, its effect on competition in this market will be most interesting. The health care sector, and particularly large private sector players (Private Health Care), has long been in the cross-hairs of the SACC, with many enforcement actions, heavily contested merger control proceedings and most recently, the market inquiry into the private healthcare sector conducted and concluded by the SACC. Concentration and Coordination has been key to the debate. While the Exemptions will apply only for so long as the state of disaster remains in effect, the effects of these measures on the industry is likely to endure for some time and will reform the debate around the future of health care in South Africa. On the 8th of April the Block Exemption was amended to additionally cater for the following:
(i) Those agreements which are exempt can only be undertaken at the request of the Department of Trade, Industry and Competition or the Department of Health. Furthermore, either of these departments may impose further conditions on the agreements or practices; and
(ii) The Exemption now caters for agreements or practices between manufacturers and suppliers of medical and hygiene supplies.
The Block Exemption published in favour of the Banking Sector is aimed at exempting a category of agreements or practices between Banks, the members of the Banking Association of South Africa and/or Payments Association of South Africa from application of sections 4 and 5 of the Act and promoting cooperation between these industry participants to mitigate damages and to ensure the effective continuance of banking infrastructure. In this regard, industry participants are to coordinate and agree on, inter alia:
operation of payment systems and the continued availability of notes at ATMs, branches and businesses; debtor and credit management to cater for payment holidays and debt relief (including limitations on asset recovery and the extension of further credit terms).
Retail Property Sector
The Block Exemption in respect of the Retail Property Sector applies only to retail landlords and designated retail tenants (required to shut down in terms of the national shut down currently in place) and aims to provide a framework for cooperation between industry participants in respect of payment holidays and rental discounts and limitations on the eviction of tenants. The Block Exemptions also seek to cater for cooperation on limitations to the restrictions placed on tenants to protect their viability during the nation disaster, likely to allow tenants to alter of expand their product or service offerings to fall within the category of businesses or services exempt from the restrictions currently enforced by Government, thereby ensuring alternative income and increased capacity on key products and services.
The Exemption granted to hotel industry operators seeks to enable the hotel industry to collectively engage with various Government departments with respect to identifying and providing appropriate quarantine facilities. The Exemption applies to agreements or practices pertaining to the identification and provision of quarantine facilities, and cost reduction measures in providing accommodation for persons in quarantine.
Block Exemptions have not been widely utilised in South Africa. To the extent that the measures introduced by the Block Exemptions are effectively implemented, however, the use and application of the process of exemptions under the Competition Act may become a more prominent feature of the South African competition law process. The nature of emergencies are such that they expedite the implementation of historical process which were otherwise untouched or contested as the counterfactual has changed.
It is already evident that more and more industries affected by the COVID-19 will apply for or be granted block exemptions to ensure that they are able to effectively avert the negative effects associated with disruptions caused to the business and economy. Examples of these include the Grocery Retail and/or Fast Moving Consumable Goods Sectors, Security Sector and more.
The Pricing Regulations, are published in terms of a combination of the Competition Act, the Consumer Protection Act 61 of 2008 (2008) and the Disaster Management Act (2002) and apply only to the ‘key supplies identified in the Pricing Regulations and will remain in effect only for so long as COVID-19 remains a ‘national disaster’. Section 8(3)(f) of the Competition Act provides that in determining whether a price is an excessive price (for purposes of section 8(1)), it must be determined whether that price is higher than a competitive price and whether such difference is unreasonable, determined by taking into account any regulation published by the Minister in terms of Section 78. In terms of the Pricing Regulations a price will be considered an excessive price for purposes of Section 8(1) of the Competition Act where, during this period of national disaster, a price increase: does not correspond to or is not equivalent to the increase in the costs of providing that goods or service; or increases the net margin or mark-up on that good or service above the average margin or mark-up for that good or service in the three month period prior to 1 March 2020.
Notably, Section 8 applies only to dominant firms.
In addition to the above, the Pricing Regulations contain a similar assessment for the consideration of what is termed unconscionable, unfair, unreasonable and unjust price increases in the Consumer Protection Act. While it is likely that what constitutes an excessive price under the Competition Act will also constitute an unreasonable price increase for purposes of the Consumer Protection Act, the opposite may not be true. The Consumer Protection Act is enforced by a different authority in South Africa and case precedent has been quite limited, compared to the competition authorities.
The Pricing Regulations also cover quantities and the restrictions on sale to maintain equitable distribution and curb stockpiling. No mention is made of the Competition Act or Consumer Protection Act in these paragraphs, although they should also be considered in the broader context of competition policy and what the Pricing Regulations seek to achieve. Although South African competition policy is not ordinarily concerned with discrimination at the final consumer level, in terms of the Pricing Regulations, retailers are effectively required to ration the quantity sold, as the normal economic mechanism, whereby suppliers sell to those parts of the demand curve with a sufficient willingness to pay, is suspended.
The penalty provisions of the Pricing Regulations require prosecution in terms of the underling legislation, being the Competition Act and Consumer Protection Act respectively as these sanctions exceed the powers given to the Minister in the Disaster Management Act. The Pricing Regulations state that subject to the further specific provisions of the respective pieces of legislation, a failure to comply with the Pricing Regulations may attract a fine of up to R1 000 000 and/or a 10% of a firms turnover and imprisonment for a period not exceeding 12 months (depending on the applicable legislation). In terms of the Competition Act, only cartel conduct under section 4(1)(b) attracts criminal liability.
The Minister has recently announced that a number of firms are under investigation for allegedly contravening the provisions of the Competition Act and/or Consumer Protection Act in a manner prohibited by the Pricing Regulations.
The Disaster Management Act provides that the declaration of a national state of disaster can terminate after the expiry of 3 months or upon notice in the Government Gazette by the Minister before the expiry of 3 months. The Minister can nonetheless extend such a period for one month at a time.
Accordingly, the Disaster Management Act offers little certainty on how and when the measures implemented will come to an end.
In three recent decisions, two by the Competition Tribunal and one by the Competition Appeal Court, a number of important procedural flaws were exposed in the manner in which certain complaints were initiated against various respondents. The Competition Appeal Court even made an adverse costs order against the Competition Commission in one of the cases. We discuss these important decisions below.
Misjoinder of Parent Company
The South African Competition Commission (“SACC”) had recently alleged that Power Construction (West Cape) Pty Ltd (“West Cape”) and Haw and Inglis (Pty) Ltd (“H&I”) colluded in respect of a tender submitted to South African National Roads Agency (SANRAL). The tender was in respect of maintenance services. The SACC alleges both parties had contravened section 4(1)(b)(ii) and (iii) of the South African Competition Act (the “Act”). The parent company of West Cape, Power Construction (Pty) Ltd (“Power Construction”) was cited as a respondent on the basis that it would be liable to pay the administrative penalty. Power Construction, had engaged in “with prejudice” settlement negotiations.
The SACC refused the proffer and informed Power Construction that after having considered the settlement proceed that it was clear that Power Construction and West Cape (being the subsidiary of Power Construction) shared a majority of their respective directors which, according to the SACC, was sufficient to implicate Power Construction in the alleged collusive conduct. Accordingly, the SACC alleged that any Administrative Should be calculated using the higher annual turnover figures of Power Construction.
Power Construction disputed this, arguing that it was never alleged by the SACC that Power Construction had contravened the Act. The SACC then opted to amend its referral to include Power Construction. On application to the South African Competition Tribunal (“Tribunal”), the Tribunal dismissed the proposed amendment on the basis that the SACC had failed to provide any material evidence to establish a prime facia case in favour the relevant amendment, stating that the burden remains on the applicant to prove that it is deserving of the amendment by putting sufficient factual allegations before the Tribunal.
In conclusion, the Tribunal also confirmed that the amendment could regardless have been rendered excipiable based on prescription. In this matter, the alleged conduct ceased more than three years prior to the Commission becoming aware of the conduct.
In a further case, namely the Competition Commission and Pickfords Removals SA, regarding the interpretation of section 67(1) of the Act (namely that dealing with prescription), the Competition Appeal Court (“CAC”) was very recently called to decide on the correct date for the running of prescription in terms of section 67(1) of the Act.
The SACC (being the appellant in the matter), brought an appeal to the CAC after the Tribunal held that the complaint initiated by the SACC was time barred in terms of section 67 of the Act.
The SACC disputed this and submitted that prescription in terms of section 67 of the Act should only commence from the date on which the Commissioner or Complainant acquired knowledge of the prohibited practice and, alternatively, that the Tribunal has a discretion to condone non-compliance with this 3-year time period. The latter issue was central to the dispute.
The question was further complicated by the fact that the SACC filed two compliant initiations against the respondents. The SACC submitted that the so called ‘second initiation’ was merely an amendment to the first initiation. So the SACC argued, even if the time period had begun running when the practice had stopped, the time period in question would still not have expired.
In this regard, the CAC held that the SACC has the power to amend a compliant initiation and that it must be taken at its word on whether a second initiation is an amendment to the first or a separate and distinct complaint initiation. This is so, particularly where both complaint initiations concern the same conduct, in the same market and where the first complaint initiation states that the conduct is ongoing.
In relation to the issue of prescription, the CAC held that section 67 cannot be equated with section 12 of the South African Prescription Act which provides for prescription to commence from the moment on which the “creditor acquires knowledge of the identity of the debtor and the relevant fact from which the debt arises”. Section 49B(1) of the Prescription Act provides for a much lower threshold, being the ‘reasonable suspicion of the existence of a prohibited practice’.
Accordingly, it must be accepted that the time bar in section 67 is intended to be a limitation of the Commissioner’s wide ranging powers (to prevent investigation into historic matters which are no longer in the public interest) and that the knowledge requirement contained in the Prescription Act cannot be read into this limitation as argued by the SACC. It follows then, based on this reasoning that there can similarly be no condonation by the Tribunal or the CAC on these matters.
For completeness sake, the CAC confirmed the general understanding that, for purposes of section 67, the alleged prohibited conduct will be deemed to have ceased on the date on which the respondent last benefited from the prohibited conduct (e.g. the date on which it last received payment under the agreement). In this regard, the Tribunal initially ordered the parties to produce evidence of the date on which the last payment was received. The CAC deemed this appropriate and opted not to interfere with this order.
Condonation and Costs
The Tribunal was also called recently upon to decide two interlocutory applications, the first being a condonation application brought by the SACC in terms of section 54 of the Act for the late filing of its revised trial bundle (containing an additional 1221 pages), which was opposed by the respondents (Much Asphalt and Roadmac Surfing) and finally a counter application for costs against the SACC.
In terms of the condonation application, the SACC sought to revise the trial bundle on the basis that the revised trial bundle contained documents which were essential to its case (which were inadvertently omitted from its initial bundle) and had been re-organized in a manner that was less burdensome for all the parties involved. In support, the SACC argued, that the respondents wouldn’t be prejudiced by the late filing as the extra documents had already been discovered.
The Tribunal confirmed that the test for condonation must be ‘good cause shown’ by the SACC which should be assessed on case by case basis. The Tribunal held that the SACC had not shown good cause in this matter as it had ample time to furnish the respondents with the revised bundle and further found that filing the revised bundle at the 11th hour was unnecessarily prejudicial to the respondents.
In terms of applications for costs, the respondents sought an order for wasted costs in relation to the postponement due to the late furnishing of the bundle as well as the cost of defending the application for condonation. Importantly it should be borne in mind that the Tribunal does not as a matter of course make cost orders against the SACC. In this regard, the Constitutional Court has previously held that the Tribunal does not have the powers to make adverse cost orders against the SACC, even where the SACC has abused its powers. The general rule is that the parties pay their own costs. The Tribunal may only make cost orders against third parties and, accordingly, dismissed the respondent’s application for costs.
John Oxenham, director of Primerio says that these cases demonstrate the objectivity and impartiality of the adjudicative bodies which is an encouraging sign for respondents who do not believe that the case brought against them is procedural or substantively fair.
Fellow competition lawyer, Michael-James Currie says it is unfortunate that only the Competition Appeal Court makes adverse costs rulings and that the Competition Tribunal is precluded from doing so. Adverse costs ruling against the SACC should be reserved for matters in which there was clear negligence in the manner in which a case was investigated, pleaded or prosecuted. Such costs orders would, however, go a long way in ensuring that parties and in particular the prosecution agency, does not refer cases to the adjudicative bodies (which have limited prospects of success) with no downside risk in losing the case.
Oxenham shares Currie‘s sentiment and suggests that adverse costs orders against the Commission will likely result in a more efficient enforcement regime as cases will be settled more expeditiously and respondents will be more reluctant to oppose the Competition Commission’s complaints with the knowledge that the SACC is confident in its case and prepared to accept the risk of an adverse costs order.
[The Editor wishes to thank Charl van der Merwe for his contribution to this article]
It carries with it significant, and in our view, adverse, effects that will burden companies trying to conduct business or invest in South Africa. These burdens will be particularly onerous on foreign entities wishing to enter the market by acquisitions, as well as any firm having a market share approaching the presumptive threshold of dominance, namely 35%
On Wednesday, 17 October 2018, the law firms of Primerio and Norton Incorporated held an in-depth seminar and round-table discussion on the ramifications of the Competition Amendment Bill. The setting was an intimate “fireside chat“ with business and in-house legal representatives from leading companies, active across a variety of sectors in the South African economy.
Moderated and given an international pan-African perspective by Primerio partner Andreas Stargard, the panel included colleagues John Oxenham and Michael-James Currie, who delved into the details of the proposed amendments to the existing Competition Act, covered extensively by AAT here.
As of today, 18 October 2018, the Bill appears set to be promulgated. The SA Parliament’s committee on economic development has rubber-stamped the proposed amendments after a prior committee walk-out staged by the opposition Democratic Alliance (DA), in opposition to the Bill. DA MP and economic development spokesperson Michael Cardo states:
“The ANC rammed the Competition Amendment Bill through the committee on economic development, and adopted a report agreeing to various amendments. To make sure they had the numbers for a quorum, the ANC bussed in two never-seen-before members to act as pliant yes men and women. Questions from the DA to the minister… This bill is going to have far-reaching consequences for the economy. It gives both the minister and the competition authorities a great deal of power to try and reshape the economy. It is unfortunate that the ANC, and the committee chair in particular, have suspended their critical faculties to force through this controversial bill and behaved like puppets on a string pulled by the minister of economic development.”
The Amendment Bill introduces significant powers for ministerial intervention and bestows greater powers on the Competition Commission, the investigatory body of the competition authorities in South Africa.
The panel discussion provided invaluable insights into the driving forces behind the Bill and ultimately what this means for companies in South Africa as it certainly won’t be business as usual if the Amendment Bill is brought into effect – particularly not for dominant entities.
[If you attended the panel discussion and would like to provide feedback to the panelists or would generally like to get in touch with the panelists, please send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org and we will put you in touch with the relevant individuals]