Book release exclusive: “Class Action Litigation in South Africa”

As foreshadowed over the past 4 years, since the inception of this blog, the topic of class action litigation (aka collective action) has gained momentum in Africa’s southern-most jurisdiction.

For our readers’ consideration, we invite you to purchase our editor John Oxenham‘s new authoritative (and first of its kind) book, entitled “Class Action Litigation in South Africa”.  If interested, please use the form below or e-mail us (editor@africanantitrust.com) for ordering information from JUTA Law publishers.

If you are in Johannesburg, S.A., on Wednesday, 2 August 2017, we would also be delighted if you could attend the book launch event — please be sure to R.S.V.P. to bdev@primerio.international if you plan to do so, however, as it is a private guest-list event only and requires your name for access to the venue.

We are most excited about the volume, which is the first of its kind and deals with a novel area of the law.  It contains chapters written by current and former firm members, including Andreas Stargard, Njeri Mugure, and of course the editor, John Oxenham.

Advertisements

Administrative Penalties & Behavioural Remedies – Two Sides of the Same Coin?

By AAT Senior Contributor, Michael-James Currie.

In the wake of the dust settling around the recent settlement agreement reached between ArcelorMittal (AMSA) and the South African Competition Commission (SACC), it may be an opportune time to consider the appropriateness of behavioural penalties levied in respect of firms engaging in cartel conduct or abuse of dominance practices.

AAT Header squareIn terms of the AMSA settlement agreement, AMSA admitted to contravening the cartel provisions contained in the Competition Act and agreed to pay a R1.5 billion (in instalments of no less than R300 million per annum for five years) administrative penalty. In addition to the administrative penalty, AMSA also agreed to invest approximately R4,6 Million into the South African economy for the next 5 years (provided the prevailing economic conditions render such investment feasible) by way of CAPEX obligations.

Furthermore, a pricing remedy was imposed on AMSA in terms of which AMSA undertook not to generate earnings before interest and tax of more than 10% for the next five years (which could be amended on good cause shown, but was capped, in any event, at 15%).

The nature of the settlement terms as agreed to by AMSA is not, however, a novel feature in settlements before the South African Competition Authorities. In 2010, the Competition Commission settled its investigation in relation to Pioneer Foods’ activities in the maize and wheat milling, baking, poultry and eggs industries (the settlement came after the Competition Tribunal had already imposed a R197 million administrative penalty against Pioneer in respect of its participation in a bread cartel).

In terms of the settlement agreement, Pioneer undertook to:

  • pay R250 million as an administrative penalty to National Revenue Fund;
  • pay R250 million to create an Agro-processing Competitiveness Fund to be administered by the Industrial Development Corporation (IDC);
  • increase its capital expenditure by R150 million over and above its currently approved capital expenditure (capex) budget; and
  • cooperate with the Competition Commission in the ongoing investigations and prosecutions of the cases that are the subject of this settlement; and stopping anti-competitive conduct and implementing a competition compliance programme.

Furthermore, and more recently, the consent agreement with edible fats producer Sime Darby Hudson Knight (“Sime Darby”), is a further example of a consent order which included financial undertakings in addition to paying an administrative penalty.

In terms of this consent agreement, Sime Darby undertook to invest and establish a warehouse for the distribution of its products into territories which it had previously not distributed its products into, due to the market allocation agreement which formed the basis of the complaint. Sime Darby also committed to contributing to funding the entry of a BEE distributor.

What is evident from the above three examples is that over and above the administrative penalty which may be imposed on a respondent, the financial impact of the additional behavioural and public interest related conditions may substantially exceed the administrative penalty itself.

It is, therefore, an important factor for respondents who find themselves in settlement negotiations with the Competition Commission to consider alternative terms of settling a matter as opposed to merely focussing on the administrative penalty itself.

From an agency’s perspective, the costs associated with behavioural conditions must be carefully weighed up as they also tend to require ongoing, and occasionally extensive oversight by the authorities. Furthermore, it is important to ensure that behavioural remedies are not abused, both by the authorities and by respondents.

south_africaWhile settlement negotiations are inherently flexible, it is important that agencies ensure an objective and a transparent methodology in the manner in which they approach the quantification of a settlement agreement. This has certainty been strived for by the Competition Commission when it elected to publish Guidelines on the Determination of the Calculation of Administrative Penalties (Guidelines). The objectives of the Guidelines, may however, be undermined in light of the broader behavioural and public interest related conditions imposed in recent cases.

A clear and objective point of departure would be favourable for both the agency itself and the relevant respondent in being able to conclude settlement negotiation expeditiously.

A further important consideration, which is particularly highlighted in the AMSA settlement agreement, is whether the remedies provide for an adequate deterrent factor and/or address the relevant harm.

Importantly, in the AMSA matter, AMSA’s R4.6 million CAPEX expenditure investment was as a result of a complaint into alleged abuse of dominance. In terms of the settlement agreement, AMSA did not admit liability for having engaged in abuse of dominance practices.

In light of the fact that the Competition Commission generally requires an admission of liability before concluding a consent order, it is not clear to us, at this stage, why the Commission elected not to demand an admission of liability in relation to the abuse of dominance complaint.

It may be that the Commission did not wish to spend the significant resources in prosecuting an abuse of dominance case, or that the Commission took the view that any abuse of dominance finding would likely only be in respect of the general prohibition against exclusionary conduct, as per Section 8(c) of the Competition Act, which carries no administrative liability for a first time offence.

Accordingly, it may have been a strategic weighing up of the ‘costs versus likely penalty’ which shaped the Commission’s strategic decision.

Whether or not such a strategic decision is justified is not a particular focus of this article. What we do wish to highlight, however, is that absent an admission of liability, a third party who seeks to pursue follow-on damages will be precluded from bringing a civil damages claim against AMSA. This was confirmed by the Supreme Court of Appeal in the Premier Foods matter in 2015.

The Media 24 Case

Shifting our train of thought to another issue, although not unrelated, is the question as to what exactly constitutes an administrative penalty?

The question was raised, although ultimately not decided by the Competition Tribunal in the recent Media 24 predatory pricing case.

After having been found guilty by the Competition Tribunal, in 2015, for contravening section 8(c) of the Competition Act (for engaging in ‘predatory pricing’), a separate hearing was held to determine the appropriate sanction. As mentioned above, an administrative penalty is not permissible for a first time offence of section 8(c) of the Act.

At the hearing the Competition Commission had proposed, as one of its remedies that Media 24 undertake to establish a R10 million development fund to fund a new entrant into the market.

Media 24 objected to the proposed remedy and raised the argument that the remedy proposed by the Commission would effectively be an administrative penalty, which is not a permissible sanction in terms of the Competition Act.

The Competition Tribunal elected to evaluate the remedy from a practical perspective, finding that the proposed remedy would not be suitable or effective, but deliberately kept open the legal question as to whether or not a remedy which requires any financial commitment from the respondent would effectively amount to an administrative penalty.

The question is rather vexing and may require clarification in due course.

Assuming that the proposed remedy in the Media 24 case would indeed amount to an administrative penalty, the question would naturally arise whether a CAPEX undertaking, as was the case in the AMSA matter discussed above, would also be considered a form of an administrative penalty. If so, then due consideration should be had as to whether the aggregation of the ‘stated administrative penalty’ (i.e. the R1.5 billion in AMSA’s case) together with the behavioural remedies imposed in AMSA (a minimum of R4.6 billion), should be calculated for purposes of determining whether the statutory cap of 10% of a firm’s turnover has been exceeded.

Alternatively, if the Competition tribunal ultimately decides that the proposed remedy in Media 24 is not an administrative penalty as contemplated in terms of the Competition Act, then effectively, we may see an entire new paradigm in the manner in which firms are sanctioned for contravening the Competition Act. For instance, those provisions of the Competition Act which do not cater for an administrative penalty for a first time offence (i.e., certain vertical, horizontal and abuse of dominance practices), may in any event result in respondents paying substantial ‘penalties’ for contravening these provisions.

Furthermore, respondents may not be afforded the protection which the statutory cap places on administrative penalties. As noted above, a firm may be subjected to an administrative penalty which does not exceed 10% of its annual turnover, but the net effect of the respondent’s financial liability may indeed exceed the cap.

While we do not pronounce our views on this issue, suffice it to say that firms engaging with the Competition Authorities with a view of concluding a settlement agreement are entering into a ‘new world’ and there are a number of options, avenues and risks associated in ultimately negotiating a settlement.

Accordingly, the issues raised above may be particularly useful in the manner in which firms embark on their settlement strategies.

 

 

Antitrust in the Digital Economy: Fighting Inequality?

AAT the big picture

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

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

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

Should competition authorities in developing countries focus on digital markets?

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

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

The low income population acting as consumers

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

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

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

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

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

The low income population acting as entrepreneurs

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

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

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

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

*Co-editor, Developing World Antitrust

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

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

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

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

Antitrust exemption regime: Value-add or underutilized?

Professional Associations in Kenya not Making Use of Exemption Provisions a Major Concern for Competition Authority

Continuing in our series about the burgeoning East African Community and its nascent antitrust regime, AAT contributing author and Pr1merio attorney, Elizabeth Sisenda, writes a second installment covering the exemption regime of the region and its (surprising) underutilized status to date.

Elizabeth Sisenda, LL.M (London) LL.B (CUEA) PGD Law (KSL)

Price-fixing in Kenya is prohibited under the Competition Act No. 12 of 2010 under Section 21 (3) (a) which provides that any agreements, decisions or concerted practices which directly or indirectly fix purchase or selling prices or any other trading condition is prohibited under the Act, unless they are exempt in accordance with the provisions of Section D of Part III.

Part III B further prohibits price-fixing by trade associations under Section 22 (b) (i) which provides that the making, indirectly or directly, of a recommendation by a trade association to its members or to any class of its members which relates to the prices charged, or to be charged by such members, or to any class of members, or to the margins included in the prices, or to the pricing formula used in the calculation of those prices, constitutes a restrictive trade practice under the Act.

Section 29 (1) of the Act further outlines the rules for exemptions in respect of professional associations. It provides that a professional association whose rules contain a restriction that has the effect of preventing, distorting or lessening competition in a market must apply in writing or in the prescribed manner to the Competition Authority for an exemption. Sub-section (2) goes on to explain what factors the Authority considers in order to grant an exemption for a specified period. These include:

  • Maintenance of professional standards
  • Maintenance of the ordinary functioning of the profession
  • Internationally applied norms

Section 29 (5) further gives discretion to the Authority to revoke an exemption in respect of such rules or the relevant part of the rules, at any time, if the Authority considers that any rules, either wholly or in part, should no longer be exempt under this section. For instance, if they no longer promote consumer welfare or do not enhance standards in the profession.

Price setting concerns by Law Society of Kenya, LSK

kenyaProfessional fees for advocates in Kenya are set by the Chief Justice under the Advocates Act Chapter 16 of the Laws of Kenya. Part IX Section 44 provides that the Chief Justice may by order prescribe and regulate in such manner as he/she thinks fit the remuneration of advocates in respect of all professional business, whether contentious or non-contentious. Sub-section (2) also provides that the Chief Justice may prescribe a scale of rates of commission or percentage in respect of non-contentious business.

However, Section 45 provides that agreements in respect of remuneration may be made between the advocate and the client subject to permissible professional rules under section 46 of the Act. Therefore, as much as the Chief Justice may set professional fees under the Act, there is an opportunity for the advocate and the client to agree on professional fees subject to the Act. Moreover, a client has redress to apply to the courts under Section 45 (2) to set aside or vary such an agreement on grounds that it is harsh, unconscionable, exorbitant or unreasonable according to professional practice. The decision of the court on this matter is final.

The Chief Justice periodically revises the Advocates Remuneration Order which sets out the scale of professional legal fees. In doing so the Chief Justice considers factors such as inflation and the costs of providing legal fees. The Kenyan Advocates Remuneration Order was last revised upwards in 2014, increasing professional fees by 50%. The Order was last revised in 1997. Advocates had petitioned the Chief Justice to do so in order to enable them cope with tough economic conditions. Recently there was a public discourse on whether advocates should have set fees. Stakeholders argue that the Chief Justice’s decision to adjust fees may not be entirely objective because since he or she has qualifications in law, and could revert to the profession upon retirement from office.

LSK on the other had contends that the minimum fees help protect consumers from poor services, and it reduces the price wars that would occur without the scale of fees. Under the Advocates Act, charging below the set scale of fees amounts to undercutting. This is a professional offense that could result in the concerned advocate being suspended or struck off the roll. Moreover, any agreements or instruments prepared by the concerned advocate are liable to be invalidated by the courts.

The question arose among legal stakeholders as to whether the Authority could intervene in relation to the scale of professional fees under the provisions on price-fixing. The LSK chairperson recently commented that it is beyond the jurisdiction of the Authority, as the Remuneration Order seeks to set minimum fees and not a fixed rate. However, it is clear from the provisions of Section 29 that any professional body whose rules, having regard to internationally applied standards, contain any restrictions which have the effect of preventing or substantially lessening competition in a market, must apply to the Competition Authority for an exemption of the said rules.

Price Setting Concerns by Association of Kenya Reinsurers, AKR

The Association of Kenya Reinsurers is regulated by the Kenya Reinsurance Corporation Limited Act, Cap 487A of the Laws of Kenya. The Association consists of the following companies: Kenya Reinsurance Corporation Limited, Africa Reinsurance Corporation Limited, East Africa Reinsurance Company, Zep – Re and Continental Reinsurance Limited. The Authority recently investigated this association for price fixing following a complaint lodged from the National Intelligence Service (NIS). The association, through a circular dated 2, October 2013, had advised its members on the minimum applicable premiums upon renewal of NIS Group Life Scheme for 2013/2014. Insurance companies are required by their regulator Insurance Regulatory Authority (IRA) to use an independent actuary to come up with their own individual premium rates, which they file with the IRA for approval.

The association is required under the Competition Act Section 29 (1) to apply in the prescribed manner to the Authority for an exemption in relation to any anti-competitive rules. Section 22 (2) (b) also prohibits the making, directly or indirectly, of a recommendation by a trade association to its members, or to any class of its members which relates to the prices charged, or to be charged by such members, or any such class of members, or to the margins included in the prices, or to the prices, or to the pricing formula used in the calculation of those prices. Therefore, the Association is legally bound to seek the approval of the Authority in order to set a minimum fee for any particular group of consumers. Moreover, the association may be in violation of Section 21 (f) of the Competition Act which prohibits any decisions by associations of undertakings which applies dissimilar conditions to equivalent transactions with other trading parties, thereby placing them at a competitive disadvantage, unless they are exempt in accordance with the provisions of Section D of Part III.

Conclusion

In conclusion, professional associations in Kenya should take advantage of the provisions of Section 29 of the Competition Act which allow professional associations to apply rules whose effect is the lessening of competition in the market, provided they are applied to enhance professional standards, the ordinary functioning of the profession or internationally applied norms for the benefit of consumers.

 

 

ECONAfrica: African Corporate Debt — Reality, Regulation and Risks

By Peter O’Brien

In our new AAT series, ECONAfrica, Pr1merio economist Peter O’Brien discusses corporate debt issues on the continent.

Debt debates on Africa nearly always talk about sovereign debt. But in economies which are growing, even if with plenty of ups and downs, firms need to finance expansion. Banks can help, yet this is often not so easy to organize. Another option is to issue corporate bonds (‘CB’). Since rating agencies generally assess clients on a three letter basis (sometimes with a + or – at the end), we will make our 3R assessment of African CB. What’s the reality, what’s the regulatory situation, and what are the risks and rewards?

Overview

First, a thumbnail sketch (admittedly based on limited evidence) of the stylized facts:

  • So far, all African countries (including the Middle East) account for less than 5% of the value of all CB issued by Emerging Market Economies (EME).
  • Within that, South Africa, Mauritius and Egypt add up to around two thirds, with South Africa alone as one third.
  • Most CB in Africa have maturities no more than 10 years
  • Over half of the bonds are fixed interest
  • Roughly 30% of the CB are considered high yield (another way of saying that investors reckon the risks are substantial)
  • It seems as if there is more or less an even split between CB issued in local currency (hence with local currency coupon rates) and those in foreign currency (nearly all $ or euro)
  • The investors are in the main a group of 50-60 funds
  • In South Africa, as of October 2015, foreign holdings of local CB were 35% of the total
  • In a number of African countries, the leading corporate borrowers are parastatal firms
  • Corporate debt, measured as a percentage of GDP, is far lower in African countries than in most others. While many other places, especially some of the big EME, are vulnerable to macroeconomic damage stemming from corporate debt, Africa (including South Africa, where this percentage has remained remarkably stable) should be fairly safe
Economist corporate debt in South Africa has remained the same as percentage of GDP

Corporate debt in South Africa has remained the same as percentage of GDP (Source: The Economist)

Lessons Learned?

What does this picture tell us? Its principal message is surely that this is an area certain to experience major changes, and quite possibly major expansion (not only in volume but also in the players involved).

Now to regulation, both internal and external. The country that seems to have explicitly made provision for corporate debt, and its restructuring, is South Africa. In Companies Act 71 of 2008, enacted in 2011, there are clauses that set out possibilities for Corporate Debt restructuring.  Since enactment, over 400 companies have applied for these methods of handling the problems, and there are upwards of 80 entities offering specialized advice in the field. This prudent approach no doubt stems in part from the size and significance of corporate borrowing in that country. Elsewhere, legal and regulatory issues seem, on balance, to hold back greater reliance on CB. In part there are accounting and corporate governance standards which local companies may not yet meet. In part, it appears that the disclosure requirements that must be met before recourse to CB can be made may constrain the actions of companies (bank borrowing generally requires less disclosure). On the external side, the Basel 111 stipulations matter, in particular because they limit the possibilities for underpricing of CB (a practice that has been fairly frequent till now).

What is missing in the regulatory environment, however, is any overall examination of what might be done to stimulate the prudent use of CB. If this were to be done, such regulation would need to assess financial, economic and anti-trust issues.

The risks and rewards of the CB approach to corporate funding, and indeed the opportunities to use it, are very different across Africa. From economies such as Kenya and Botswana, where the phenomenon is on the rise, to those of the Maghreb, where political uncertainties in very recent years seem to have stunted what was a promising growth, to many parts of West Africa, where to date there is seemingly little activity in this area, each country has its own environment. However, the ever greater integration in the various regions means that there may well be prospects for making better use of private regional funds and of sovereign funds. Either way, African companies should look forward with optimism to utilizing more local capital. It is the job of regulators to ensure this is done in a sound way financially, and that these markets operate competitively.

 

The Big Picture: Public-Interest Factors in Antitrust

AAT the big picture

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

By Michael Currie

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

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

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

south_africaThe Law

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

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

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

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

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

Vodacom

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Disconcerting Trend Away from Law & Economics

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

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

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

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

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

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

Another Market Inquiry: Grocery/Retail

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


[1] See here, here, and here.

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

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

Infrastructure projects, competition & regulation: Tafotie on regional oversight

Africa-infrastructure

The necessity of strong regional regulatory oversight on infrastructure projects in Africa

RogerBy Roger Tafotie

Dr. Tafotie is a Pr1merio advisor with a legal & business focus on both African and European markets.  A member of the Luxembourg Bar, he is also a lecturer in law at the University of Luxembourg. His focus areas include project finance/public private partnerships, banking & finance, and corporate law.

In his latest paper on essential infrastructure development on the African continent, Roger not only embarks on a mission to clarify the valuable role of public-private partnerships (“PPPs”) — he also reminds us that, beyond “well-drafted projects contracts,” there must also be an “effective and efficient African regional regulatory oversight system, with clear roles and lines of command, that is able to protect against ills such as self-dealings and anti-competitive alliances or monopolies,” including “the monitoring of the tendering process against corruption.”

Enhanced competition and an effective oversight system to weed out corruption in the bidding (and execution) process not only protects the local, national or regional governmental issuer of the infrastructure PPP.  In order to keep all stakeholders, including global financing institutions or other private lenders, in a position of “acceptable risk,” a well-supervised competitive process is essential to tender selection and project execution.

You can find the full paper here, exclusively on AAT and on AAF.

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

AAT the big picture

Professor Tchapga on competition legislation in a future regionally integrated Africa

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

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

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

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

Short-term sights in favour of long-term gains: Patel’s industrial policies risk effective competition in South Africa

AAT the big picture

By Michael Currie

Discarding any objectivity and international best practice, the Minister of Economic Development, Mr. Ebrahim Patel, has once again expressed his desire to use the South African Competition Commission (“SACC”) as an agency to actively promote the government’s industrial policies.

Speaking at a media briefing, Patel told journalists that the focus of the Economic Development Department would be to grow “black ownership of new industry in South Africa and using state funding to grow the work of black entrepreneurs”.[1]

Minister Patel

Patel said the intention of using the SACC to launch a market inquiry into the retail sector was to “ensure that we’ve got a competitive sector, but also an inclusive sector”. This statement and the decision to institute a market inquiry into the retail sector is, at least at this stage, problematic for two reasons. Firstly, the retail sector is arguably one of the most competitive sectors in South Africa, and any barrier to entry into the sector is a natural consequence of a highly competitive market. Furthermore, Patel identified exclusivity clauses (which are popular provisions inserted into lease contracts between mall anchor tenants and the developers) will be one of the issues that the inquiry will look into. Patel, unfortunately, overlooked the fact that there has already been an investigation relating to these clauses. At the conclusion of the investigation, the SACC found that there is not sufficient evidence of anti-competitive impact, resulting from these clauses, and thus the SACC refrained from referring the matter to the South African Competition Tribunal (“SACT”).[2] This thus begs the question, whether it is necessary to institute a market inquiry with regard to the issue of exclusivity clauses and expose the industry to intensive and unnecessary costs?

In an article written by Mfundo Ngobese in the official newsletter of the SACC, Ngobese responds to an article written by John Oxenham and Patrick Smith, presented at the Eighth Annual Conference on Competition Law, Economics and Policy titled “What is Competition Really Good For?”. The main focus of Ngobese’s article is evaluating the merits of an argument put forward by Oxenham and Smith: that the Competition Authorities should engage in a balancing exercise between the short term impact on public interest issues (such as employment) versus the long term benefits that are associated with effective competition (such as increased economic growth which leads to more jobs created).

Public Interest Test

This brings us back to Patel’s decision to use public interest as the main ground on which a market inquiry into the retail sector should be instituted. The decision to launch a market inquiry based on the anti-competitiveness of exclusivity clauses is simply untenable in light of the SACC’s findings in respect of a previous investigation into the issue, as well as the fact that the retail industry is highly competitive.[4] Using any ‘anti-competitive’ argument as justification for launching this particular market inquiry, would amount to nothing more than a ‘fishing expedition’ by Patel and the Authorities.

The broad public interest grounds which are increasingly becoming prevalent as Patel transcends into the competition arena, coupled with the ill-defined rationale, guidelines and justifications behind the use of public interest grounds in competition review, is contributing significantly to uncertainty in the South African economy.

This ‘uncertainty’, that surrounds doing business in South Africa was recognised by African National Congress (ANC) stalwart Mathews Phosa.  The former ANC Treasurer and Mpumalanga premier identified corruption, inconsistent government policies, and other factors as root causes of investors’ growing reluctance to invest in South Africa:

Policy stability leads to political, social and economic uncertainty. Policy stability in contrast created an “investment friendly culture where every investor feels protected and free to do business”.

While businesses in the retail industry (and indeed businesses across the board) in South Africa, are desperately seeking certainty, Patel is seeking a ‘second bite of the cherry’.

The second issue with Patel’s reason for instituting the market inquiry relates to him wanting to achieve an “inclusive retail sector” and how to bring more “black South Africans into the sector”. While transformation in the economy is certainly an important issue that needs to be addressed in South Africa, it is the manner and form in which such transformation takes place, which is concerning. In this regard, the SACC is patently not the appropriate institution to ensure that there are sufficient black-owned businesses in the retail sector.

Confused Motives

Patel seems to have, unfortunately, conflated the objectives and role of his own department, with the objectives and purpose of the SACC. This comes at a time when other political meddling has led to the resignation of the National Director of Public Prosecutions, Mxolisi Nxasana, who quit his post on Sunday, after almost a year of politically-motivated wrangling and formal investigations being initiated and ultimately dropped by President Jacob Zuma.

Former NPA head Mxolisi Nxasana, forced to resign due to political pressure.

The influence that Minister Patel has had on the SACC’s policy is undoubtedly evident when one evaluates the increased reliance of the South African Competition Authorities to impose stringent conditions in approving mergers.[5]

In justifying the use of public interest grounds in competition law, the Competition Authorities may point out that South Africa’s Competition Act, 89 of 1998 (the “Act”) permits and requires public considerations to be taken into account. However, the use of public interest grounds should not, as seems to be the case, be seen as independent issues unrelated to competition which is to be considered in isolation of the purpose of the Act.[6] The Competition Authorities’ purpose, as set out in Section 2 of the Act is to “promote and maintain competition in the Republic…”. It is likely that Patel views the following two subsections which state that competition must be maintained or promoted to:

promote employment and advance the social and economic welfare of South Africans” (Section 2(c)); and

“promote a greater spread of ownership, in particular to increase the ownership stakes of historically disadvantaged persons” (Section 2(f))[7]

as the basis for his increased reliance on pushing his Department’s policy objectives through the channels of the SACC. However, placing an overly zealous reliance on these two subsections, fundamentally misconstrues the purpose and function of competition law.

Subsections (c) and (f) quoted above are not self-standing provisions; they are qualified by the general purpose of the Act. Furthermore, by viewing or placing greater reliance on these provisions as self-standing provisions, one would run into an inconceivable difficulty when considering section 2(a), which states as a further objective of the Act (and the purpose of the promoting competition) is to promote the “efficiency, adaptability and development of the economy”. At least from a Section 2 perspective, public interest considerations, at best, have to be reconciled with competition issues.

Market inquiries have often been used very successfully as an investigative tool by a number of competition agencies, especially in Europe. However, a market inquiry requires significant resource expenditure by both the SACC and the market participants and often casts a bad shadow over the relevant industry to the detriment of companies who have not engaged in any anti-competitive conduct. Market inquiries should thus be used sparingly and only when there is significant concern that a particular market is not functioning in a competitive manner. A market inquiry should certainly not be used as a means to affect change in the industry in order simply to suit the objectives of the Government.

There is a further institutional concern which must be noted, and that is that the SACC has, like all institutions, limited resources. In order to function as an efficient and formidable competition law agency, the SACC should ensure that what limited resources are available, is best utilised to achieve a competitive market environment in South Africa.

Before even engaging in policy discussions, as those that Patel is pushing for, it would firstly be necessary to ensure that the SACC has the requisite expertise to deal with policy agenda’s which are far broader than pure competition law. There are already institutions, as Patel has recognised, whose responsibility it is to promote economic growth and to address transformation within the economy.[8] It is not the responsibility of the Competition Authorities to address these issues as directly as has been the case in recent years.[9]

The need for transformation and the promotion of black industrialists is an issue to be addressed by the Government, however, it seems that there is a general lack of regard to competition concerns when Government departments form their policies. A good illustration of this is the significant criticism levelled at the new agreement struck between South African Airways (“SAA”) and the Department of Trade and Industry (“DTI”), which will see SAA redirect R10 billion rand of procurement spending to “black industrialists” (“SAA Agreement”).[10]

While this may appear to be a noble policy, the question remains whether new “black industrialists” are coming into existence, or whether existing “black industrialists” are simply going to make substantial profits at the expense of true development.

The SAA Agreement, which requires, without anything more, that a certain amount of supplies (fuel) be purchased from specific suppliers (‘black suppliers’) strikes at the heart of competition. Effectively certain existing competitors are being excluded in order to favour other competitors. In no way does this promote ‘transformation’ within the industry as the existing barriers to entry remain.

From a competition point of view, the benefit of having healthy competition in the commercial aviation market seems to have been overlooked by the DTI. Apart from the direct benefit that flows from actual cheaper air tickets, the knock-on benefits of stimulating the leisure tourism seems to have been overlooked.

While acknowledging that the SAA decision taken by the DTI is not directly linked to competition law, the disregard that the DTI appears to have to competition in the aviation industry is in stark contracts to the to the Competition Authorities in Botswana who have launched a market inquiry into the aviation sector (although notably with the focus being on unscheduled flights), due to having recognised the importance that the price of flight tickets may have on the tourism industry and the benefits that would flow from boosting the tourism industry.

Considering that SAA is battling financially, and is highly dependent on State bailouts, it is baffling that the State’s primary objective is not to ensure that SAA operates viably and competitively, before risking such competitiveness in favour of a policy which is quite frankly, difficult to justify as there is no evidence that such policies actually achieve genuine transformation or promote economic growth.[11]

One can’t help but notice the irony when it comes to the Government’s social and transformation policies. The Government, and Patel in particular, consistently ignore well established economic principles and the benefits that flow from healthy competition in the economy, in favour of promoting short-sighted top-down “transformative industrial policies”, rather than spending the scarce resources on promoting and developing South Africa from a bottom-up approach.

For instance, poor service delivery in South Africa has a significant detrimental economic and social impact on South Africa. Why improving service delivery does not appear to be high on the radar of the Department of Economic Development or the DTI, is surprising if the objectives of these departments are to promote ‘black businesses’, as the areas which are most severely affected by poor service delivery are generally areas where there is a high percentage of black persons living, who form part of the lower income brackets. In other words, areas where the promotion of small businesses and healthy competition would be most valuable to any social development objectives.

Unfortunately, however, a recent report issued by the Institute of Race Relations stated that the highest incidence of recent public protests in relation to poor service delivery, took place in areas were the most “fruitless and wasteful government expenditure” took place.[12]

Recent statistics show that South Africa’s unemployment rate is increasing, bringing into question whether the policy intervention that Patel has been championing over the past 6 years, is indeed yielding the positive results envisioned by the Government. While the purpose of this article is not to evaluate and criticise all policy interventions, the point to be made is that the effectiveness of policy intervention to advance socio-economic interests in the South Africa is in no way proving effective. While there may be a number of reasons for failing policies, it appears worrying that politicians such as Patel are prepared to risk the independence, efficient functioning and objectives of the Competition Authorities, which are ultimately to promote competition in the market, in order to promote industrial policies when there is so much uncertainty whether such policies will truly ensure long term benefits for the Country as a whole.

Two recently issued reports, namely, the Boston Consulting Group (BCG) Report and the IMD World Development Report, succinctly confirm the concerns and issues which are addressed in this article.

The BCG Report evaluates the reasons for South Africa’s stagnant economic growth. The report acknowledges that it is a necessity to improve education and healthcare and reduce unemployment to advance growth; however, the report importantly states that:

There is no hiding from the fact that short-term self-interested behaviour has been prevalent; that the emphasis in South Africa has been on cutting the pie rather than growing it.”[13]

This statement could not be truer if one considers Patel’s disregard of well established benefits that flow from a competitive environment, in favour of promoting industrial policies. The following statement by Adam Ikdal on the poor leadership in South Africa, corroborates this papers view:

a concerted program of execution is essential. In many instances this may mean putting the greater good ahead of the individual or institutional interests.”[14]

The IMD World Competitiveness Report (IMD Report) not only complements the BCG Report, but essentially confirms the views of this paper, with empirical evidence. The IMD Report indicates that South Africa has dropped from a ranking of 37 in 2012 to 53 in 2015 on a list of the world’s most competitive countries. The IMD Report not surprisingly, identified South Africa’s infrastructure shortfall, poor service delivery and lack of education and skills as some of the major contributors to South Africa’s slip down the rankings.

Crucially the director of the IMD World Competitiveness Centre, Arturo Bris, identified what sets the top performing countries apart from the others. This is what Bris had to say, which is essentially, the basis upon which the criticism identified in this paper is levelled at Patel’s policy objectives:

Productivity and efficiency are in the driver’s seat of a competitiveness wagon. Simply put, business efficiency requires greater productivity and the competitiveness of countries is greatly linked to the ability of enterprises to remain profitable over time”.[15]

In conclusion, we note that both transformation and fostering economic growth is an objective of the South African Government. This is, however, no justification for abandoning the tried and tested benefits that flow from a competitive market, in favour of promoting short-term industrial policies such as Patel is doing. Should the SACC adopt Patel’s industrial policies as part of their policy objectives, the SACC ultimately risks its independence and may effectively become an ‘umbrella institution’ under which any industrial policy agendas are driven. This would be an undesirable and intolerable outcome, and one which the South African Competition Authorities need to carefully guard against.


[1] http://www.fin24.com/Economy/Patels-focus-is-on-black-industrial-growth-20150512

[2] Competition Commission News Letter, Edition 51, January 2015.

[3] Competition Commission News Letter, Edition 51, January 2015.

[4] See footnote1.

[5] We have dealt with this aspect of merger control in more depth in previous articles, please see the following link.

[6] To illustrate the extent that public interest considerations are used by the Competition Authorities, the last intermediate merger that was approved unconditionally was in 2008. Since then, there have been 14 mergers that have been approved subject to conditions. As to large mergers, approximately 10 of the most recent 40 mergers that have come before the Competition Tribunal, 5 have been approved subject to conditions. It should be noted that it is the SACC that reviews intermediate mergers, while large mergers are reviewed bu the Competition Tribunal.

[7] Sections 2(c) and (f) of the Competition Act, 89 of 1998.

[8] For example the Industrial Development Corporation.

[9] See the AfriGroup Holdings (Pty) Ltd and Afgri Ltd merger where the South African Competition Tribunal (“SACT”) Acknowledged that the merger poses no horizontal or vertical competition law concerns. Despite reaching such a conclusion, the SACT, approved the merger on condition that an agreement reached by the parties in terms of which Afgri would contribute R90 million over four years, to a development fund for small farmers via the provision of loans, training and grain storage discounts. Similar burdensome conditions are becoming all the more prevalent in merger control, and are often self-imposed by the SACT and are not agreed upon by the parties as was the case in Afgri.

[10] The Business Day, 26 May 2015, page 14.

[11] The Business Day, 26 May 2015, page 14.

[12] http://www.polity.org.za/article/protests-linked-to-fruitless-wasteful-government-expenditure-irr-2015-05-26

[13] Financial Mail, May 21- May 27, 2015 pg 27.

[14] Financial Mail, May 21- May 27, 2015 pg 27.

[15] http://www.engineeringnews.co.za/article/power-problem-features-in-south-africas-fall-in-2015-competitiveness-ranking-2015-05-27/rep_id:3182 (accessed 28 May 2015).

Meet the Enforcers: Companies Tribunal’s Prof. Kasturi Moodaliyar

meet the enforcers

Interview with Professor Moodaliyar marks second in AAT interview series highlighting African enforcers

In the second instalment of our Meet the Enforcers series, we speak with Prof. Kasturi Moodaliyar. An Associate Professor of Competition Law, she is part-time member at the Companies Tribunal; ICASA’s Complaints and Compliance Committee; and the Film and Publication Board Appeal Tribunal. She holds a B.Proc. LLB.LLM.(Natal), M.Phil (Cambridge), and Prog. Economics and Public Finance (UNISA)

As an academic in South Africa, focussing on competition law, how do you perceive the major differences and challenges that developing or younger antitrust-law jurisdictions are faced with, compared to more established ones? Specifically with regards to the Competition Commission, what is your assessment of its strengths and weaknesses?

The Commission has established a credible reputation in the area of anti-cartel enforcement and merger regulation. However, it has been less effective in addressing abuse of dominance. This is a risk as there is increasingly an expectation that the Commission address problems of single firm dominance in concentrated markets in the South African economy. If performance continues to lag in this area it will impact negatively on the perceived effectiveness of the Commission. While under-deterence of abuse of dominance reflects some limitations in the legislation it also highlights the challenge of resource constraints faced by the Commission. Such cases demand extensive legal and economic expertise – a shift of priorities to this area may impact performance of the Commission in areas in which it has traditionally had more success (cartel busting, mergers). The use of complementary tools like market inquiries and advocacy will be important and can asset the Commission – but also places a burden on resources.

Regarding staff turnover: Do you see the personnel turnover in recent history to be of sufficient magnitude to have an impact on the performance of the enforcement agency?

It is a worrying development although there are signs that it is starting to stabilise. Although key executives were lost there are still a number of highly experienced staff at the middle management level within the institution that must be nurtured and developed. Some have moved into executive level positions. This is a positive development but also points to a level go juniority in the executive which may impact on effectiveness. Will watch this space.

On Leadership: Do you consider it a benefit or a hindrance if leadership want to introduce their own philosophy of what competition law should seek to achieve on the agency’s activities during their tenure, or do you think that the law is sufficiently clear, such that leadership should focus on efficient and effective delivery of the service, and leave the interpretation to the Tribunal/courts.

It is natural that any leader will bring their own perspective to the role – this cannot be avoided. However, it will be important for the leadership to ensure that such perspectives do not undermine their objectives in giving effect to the mandate of the Commission – which is set down in the Competition Act. Fortunately there are checks and balances in the adjudicative process (Tribunal, rights of appeal) to ensure that these objectives are not contradicted.

Prioritisation: Every agency has budgetary constraints. What are the factors that you think should be most important in how cases are prioritised, should this be based on the developmental needs to society, particular sectors, or even particular areas of the law. What do you think of the prioritisation of recent Section 8 cases, SAB (10 years on an issue that has been extensively sanitised by foreign agencies), Gold Reef News (de minimis), and Sasol Polymers (niche, with limited potential for downstream beneficiation)?

The Commission’s stated prioritisation principles seem reasonable (as they appear in annual reports). However, there is somewhat of a disjuncture between the principles and the outcomes – particularly with respect to abuse of dominance cases. In fact, the outcomes in respect of anti-cartel enforcement have been largely consistent with the application of the Commission’s prioritisation principles – so credit is deserved here. However, new thinking around prioritisation is needed for abuse of dominance cases. In this regard there needs to be a better integration between the Commissions’s policy and research activity, the use of market inquiries and its advocacy with its planning and actions around enforcement against abuse of dominance.

Do you believe that the Competition Tribunal has a role in relation to broader competition advocacy initiatives in South Africa by way of the decisions made?

Advocacy is primarily a function of the Competition Commission, not the Tribunal. The Tribunal must first and foremost safeguard the integrity of its adjudicative function by ensuring impartiality in its decision making processes. There is no harm done though if the Tribunal makes a contribution to the such initiatives as a bi-product of good decisions.

How important, in your view, is the political independence of competition enforcers?

It is very important if the integrity and effectiveness of the agency is to be upheld.

Comparing merger review in an African jurisdiction (any jurisdiction) with that of other competition enforcement agencies worldwide, where do you see the key differences?

A significant difference does appear to be the elevated status of public interest issues in merger proceedings.

What is your view about the elevation of non-competition assessments above those of pure competition tests in merger review? Is it good for the adjudication of competition matters generally?

It is not a problem in and of itself, and is to be expected given various developmental challenges. However, public interest considerations should not trump core competition concerns. In other words, agencies should strive to achieve consistency between the ‘pure’ competition policy objectives (competitive market structures, efficient outcomes etc) and public interest considerations. However, significant dangers arise when public interest objectives conflict with competition policy objectives. Where there are conflicts, alternative policy mechanisms should be considered so that agencies can focus on core non-conflicting objectives. Otherwise they may end up achieving nothing by trying to please everyone. This also means that the public interest considerations that do fall within the mandate of competition agencies should be carefully circumscribed.

What skills would you encourage regional African practitioners focus in on for purposes of developing antitrust advocacy in the region?

They should build a technocratic and professional staff with strong legal and economic skills. These core functions should also be supported by strong policy research and analysis skills – also of the technocratic professional (rather than political) variety. As an academic in this field I would also encourage ongoing training to strengthen those research, investigative and analytical skills.

Thank you, Professor Moodaliyar.