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

By Michael-James Currie

Background

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Minister Patel speaks

Minister Patel speaks

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

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

The Proposed Amendments

The Amendments identify five key objectives namely:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Abuse-of-Dominance Provisions

Excessive pricing

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

Predatory Pricing

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

General Exclusionary Conduct

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

Price Discrimination

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

Merger-Control Provisions

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

Market Inquiries

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

Additional Amendments

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

What does this all mean going forward?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Andreas Stargard

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

John Oxenham

John Oxenham

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The African WRAP – SEPTEMBER 2017 Edition

Since our June 2017 Edition of the African WRAP, we highlight below the key competition law related topics, cases, regulatory developments and political sentiment across the continent which has taken place across the continent in the past three months. Developments in the following jurisdictions are particularly noteworthy: Botswana, Kenya, Mauritius, Namibia, Tanzania and South Africa.

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


Botswana: Proposed Legislative Amendments

Introduction of Criminal Liability

The amendments to the Competition Act will also introduce criminal liability for officers or directors of a company who causes the firm to engage in cartel conduct. The maximum sanctions include a fine capped at P100 000 (approx. US$10 000) and/or a maximum five year prison sentence.

Fines for Prior Implementation

Once finalised, the legislative amendments will also introduce a maximum administrative penalty of up to 10% of the merging parties’ turnover for implementing a merger in contravention of the Act. This would include ‘gun-jumping’ or non-compliance with any conditions imposed on the merger approval.

Restructuring of the Authorities

Proposed legislative amendments to the Botswana Competition Act will likely result in the Competition Commission’s responsibilities being broadened to include the enforcement of consumer protection laws in addition to antitrust conduct.

Furthermore, there is a significant restructuring of the competition agencies on the cards in an effort to ensure that the Competition Authority – which will become the Competition and Consumer Authority (CCA) – is independently governed from the Competition Commission. Currently, the Competition Commission governs the CA but the CA is also the adjudicative body in cases referred to the Commission by the CA.

The proposed amendments, therefore, seek to introduce a Consumer and Competition Tribunal to fulfil the adjudicative functions while an independent Consumer and Competition Board will take over the governance responsibilities of the ‘to be formed’ CCA.

South Africa

Information Exchange Guidelines           

The Competition Commission has published draft Guidelines on Information Exchanges (Guidelines). The Guidelines provide some indication as to the nature, scope and frequency of information exchanges which the Commission generally views as problematic. The principles set out in the Guidelines are largely based, however, on case precedent and international best practice.

The fact that the Commission has sought to publish formal guidelines for information exchanges affirms the importance of ensuring that competitors who attend industry association meetings or similar forums must be acutely aware of the limitations to information exchanges to ensure that they do not fall foul of the per se cartel conduct prohibitions of the Competition Act.

Market Inquiry into Data Costs

The Competition Commission has formally initiated a market inquiry into the data services sector. This inquiry will run parallel with the Independent Communications Authority of South Africa’s market inquiry into the telecommunications sector more broadly.

Although the terms of reference are relatively broad, the Competition Commission’s inquiry will cover all parties in the value chain in respect of any form of data services (both fixed line and mobile). In particular, the objectives of the inquiry include, inter alia, an assessment of the competition at each of the supply chain levels, with respect to:

  • The strategic behaviour of by large fixed and mobile incumbents;
  • Current arrangements for sharing of network infrastructure; and
  • Access to infrastructure.

There are also a number of additional objectives such as benchmarking the standard and pricing of data services in South Africa against other countries and assessing the adequacy of the regulatory environment in South Africa.

Mauritius

Amnesty re Resale Price Maintenance

The Competition Commission of Mauritius (CCM) has, for a limited period of four months only, granted amnesty to firms who have engaged in Resale Price Maintenance. The amnesty expires on 7 October 2017. Parties who take advantage of the amnesty will receive immunity from the imposition of a 10% administrative penalty for engaging in RPM in contravention of the Mauritius Competition Act.

The amnesty policy followed shortly after the CCM concluded its first successful prosecution in relation to Resale Price Maintenance (RPM), which is precluded in terms of Section 43 of the Mauritius Competition Act 25 of 2007 (Competition Act).

The CCM held that Panagora Marketing Company Ltd (Panagora) engaged in prohibited vertical practices by imposing a minimum resale price on its downstream dealers and consequently fined Panagora Rs 29 932 132.00 (US$ 849,138.51) on a ‘per contravention’ basis. In this regard, the CMM held that Panagora had engaged in three separate instances of RPM and accordingly the total penalty paid by Pangora was Rs 3 656 473.00, Rs 22 198 549.00 and 4 007 110.00 respectively for each contravention.

Please see AAT’s featured article here for further information on Resale Price Maintenance under Mauritian law

Tanzania

Merger and Acquisition Threshold Notification

The Fair Competition Commission has published revised merger thresholds for the determination of mandatorily notifiable thresholds. The amendments, which were brought into effect by the Fair Competition (Threshold for notification of Merger) (Amendment) Order published on 2 June 2017, increases the threshold for notification of a merger in Tanzania from TZS 800 000 000 (approx.. US$ 355 000) to TZS 3 500 000 000 (approx.. US$ 1 560 000) calculated on the combined ‘world-wide’ turnover or asset value of the merging parties.

Kenya

            Concurrent Jurisdiction in the Telecommunications Sector

In June 2017, Kenya’s High Court struck down legislative amendments which regulated the concurrent jurisdiction between the Kenya Communications Authority and the Competition Authority Kenya in respect of anti-competitive conduct in the telecommunications sector.

In terms of the Miscellaneous Amendments Act 2015, the Communications Authority was obliged to consult with the Competition Authority and the relevant government Minister in relation to any alleged anti-competitive conduct within the telecommunications sector, prior to imposing a sanction on a market player for engaging in such anti-competitive conduct.

The High Court, however, ruled that the Communications Authority is independent and that in terms of the powers bestowed on the Communications Authority by way of the Kenya Communications Act, the Communications Authority may independently make determinations against market participants regarding antic-competitive conduct, particularly in relation to complex matters such as alleged abuse of dominance cases.

Establishment of a Competition Tribunal

The Kenyan Competition Tribunal has now been established and the chairperson and three members were sworn in early June. The Tribunal will become the adjudicative body in relation to decisions and/or taken by the Competition Authority of Kenya.

The Operational Rules of the Tribunal have not yet been published but are expected to be gazetted soon.

Introduction of a Corporate Leniency Policy

The Competition Authority of Kenya (CAK) has finalised its Leniency Policy Guidelines, which provide immunity to whistle-blowers from both criminal and administrative liability. The Guidelines specifically extend leniency to the firm’s directors and employees as well as the firm itself.

Only the “first through the door” may qualify for immunity in respect of criminal liability, but second or third responds would be eligible for a 50% and 30% reduction of the administrative penalty respectively, provided that provide the CAK with new material evidence.

It should be noted, however, that receiving immunity from criminal prosecution is subject to obtaining consent from the Director of Public Prosecution as well. As per the procedure set out in the Policy Guidelines, the Director pf Public Prosecutions will only be consulted once a leniency applicant has already disclosed its involvement in the cartel and provided the CAK with sufficient evidence to prosecute the other respondents.

It is not clear what powers the Director of Public Prosecutions would have, particular in relation to the evidence which has been provided by the leniency applicant, should either the CAK or the Director refuse to grant immunity from criminal prosecution.

Namibia

Medical aid schemes

In a landmark judgment, the Namibian Supreme Court overturned the High Court’s decision in favour of the Namibian Association of Medical Aid Funds (NAMAF) and Medical Aid Funds (the respondents) finding that the respondents did not fall within the definition of an “undertaking” for the purpose of the Namibian Competition.

Despite the substantial similarities between the Namibian and the South African Competition Act, Namibia’s highest court took a very different interpretative stance to its South African counter-part and held that because the respondents did not “operate for gain or reward” they could not be prosecuted for allegedly having  engaged in collusive behaviour in relation to their ‘tariff setting’ activities in terms of which the respondents collectively  determined and published recommended bench-marking tariffs for reimbursement to patients in respect of their medical costs.

 

 

Kenya Corporate Leniency Policy: Immunity for both Administrative and Criminal Liability on the Table

By Michael-James Currie

The Competition Authority of Kenya (CAK) has finalised its Leniency Policy Guidelines (Guidelines) as published in the Government Gazette in May 2017. This follows amendments to the Kenyan Competition Ac which now caters for the imposition of a maximum administrative penalty of 10% of a respondent’s turnover if found to have engaged in cartel conduct.

Unlike its South African counter-part, the CAK has sought to provide immunity to whistle-blowers who are “first through the door” from both criminal and administrative liability. A key proviso in respect of obtaining immunity from criminal liability, however, is that the Director of Public Prosecution must concur with the CAK.

The South African Competition Commission’s Corporate Leniency Policy only offers immunity in respect of administrative penalties. Accordingly, directors who caused or knowingly acquiesced in cartel conduct may be criminally prosecuted under South Africa’s leniency policy despite being the whistle-blower.

It should be noted that the CAK will only engage the Director of Public Prosecution when granting conditional immunity. At this stage of the leniency application, the applicant would already have had to disclose its involvement in the cartel conduct and provide the CAK with substantial evidence of the relevant conduct sufficient to establish a contravention of the Competition Act.

Accordingly, the Guidelines do not cater for the possibility that the Director of Public Prosecution may not be willing to forego criminal prosecution in respect of the leniency applicant. It is, therefore, not clear whether the evidence which was disclosed to the CAK as part of a leniency application may be used against the applicant should the Director of Public Prosecution not grant immunity in respect of criminal liability.

In this regard, it would have been useful if the Guidelines catered for this risk. For instance, by expressly affirming that the Director of Public Prosecution would abide by the CAK’s recommendations unless there are compelling reasons not to. Absent this assurance, potential leniency applicants may be reluctant to approach the CAK for leniency until there is, at the very least, a clear indication of the Director of Public Prosecutions involvement in this process.

A welcome feature of the CAK’s Guidelines, however, is that fact that the Guidelines specifically extend leniency to a firm as well as to the firm’s directors and employees. The inherent conflict which may arise between the interests of the company versus the interests of the relevant directors, therefore, has been removed.

A further significant aspect of the Guidelines is that the Guidelines do not limit the granting of leniency (in respect of administrative penalties) to the respondent who is ‘first through the door’ only. A second or third respondent would also be eligible for a reduction of the administrative penalty of 50% and 30% respectively, provided the CAK is provided with material “new evidence”. Only a respondent who is ‘first through the door’, however, will qualify for immunity in respect of criminal liability – provided the respondent is not the “instigator” of the cartel.

The Guidelines also provide a framework which sets out the process which must be followed in applying for leniency including the steps which must be taken in respect of ‘marker’ applications.

As to who may apply for leniency, it is noteworthy that while a parent company is entitled to apply for leniency on behalf of its subsidiary, the reverse is not true on the basis that a subsidiary does not control the parent company. Accordingly, in fully fledged joint ventures for example, only one of the parties to the JV may apply for leniency (to the extent that the JV contravenes the Competition Act) and, therefore, the parent company should be the entity applying for leniency and not the legal entity which is in fact the party to the JV.

[Michael-James Currie is a competition law practitioner practicing in South Africa as well as the broader African region]

The risks of seeking antitrust leniency

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

By Mitchell Brooks, AAT guest author

cutlery (1).jpg

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

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

In Brief

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

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

What is the Corporate Leniency Policy “CLP”?

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

What does immunity entail?

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

What are the risks involved?

Higher fines

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

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

Civil damages

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

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

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

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

Criminal prosecution

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

Conclusion

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

Don’t wait for leniency… Lipimile signals delays

COMESA Chief Warns of Delayed Implementation of Leniency Policy

George Lipimile, CEO, COMESA Competition Commission

George Lipimile, Director, COMESA Competition Commission

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

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

New Penalty Guidelines Provide Incentive to Apply for Leniency

Zambia: New Penalty Guidelines may Incentivise Firms to Apply for Leniency

By AAT Senior Contributor, Michael-James Currie.

At the recent International Competition Network conference held in Singapore, the International Competition Network (ICN), in conjunction with the World Bank, named the Zambian Competition and Consumer Protection Commission (CCPC) as one of the best Competition Authorities in advocating competition in key domestic markets.

The CCPC, as a competition agency, is making significant strides to ensure that the Zambian market is competitive to ensure greater consumer benefit.

In particular, the CCPC has, in recent years, strengthened its efforts to detect cartel conduct. This includes carrying out search and seizure operations, initiating investigations and introducing a corporate leniency policy (Zambian CLP) for whistle-blowers.

The Zambian CLP affords a firm who has engaged in cartel conduct, who is ‘first through the door’ in disclosing the cartel and who provides the CCPC with sufficient evidence to prosecute the cartel total immunity from an administrative penalty.

Unlike its South African counter-part, the Zambian CLP also caters for a ‘leniency plus’ whereby the ‘second through the door’ may qualify for up to a 50% reduction in respect of a potential administrative penalty.

In spite of leniency policies being regarded as arguably the most effective tool by which competition agencies detect and prosecute cartel conduct, we are not aware of the CCPC having yet received an application in terms of its CLP (as at March the CPCC had confirmed that it had not yet received such an application).

The reluctance by firms to come forward and expose cartel conduct in Zambia may be due to the fact that the Zambian CLP only extends immunity in respect of administrative liability and does not protect a whistle-blower from potential criminal or civil liability.

Despite the lack of success which the Zambian CLP has achieved thus far, the policy has only been in effect for just over a year. Furthermore, the CCPC has strengthened its efforts in initiating and concluding investigations in various sectors (which includes the stockbroker, frozen fish and milling industries, the latter of which is still on-going).

Accordingly, and in light of the recently published Draft Guidelines for the Issuance of Fines (Guidelines) (now for public comment), there may well be more activity in so far as the CLP is concerned.

zambiaThe Guidelines are clear in that administrative penalties should be punitive and should have a sufficient deterrent effect. The CCPC has expressly stated that it does not want administrative penalties to merely be considered as a ‘cost of doing business’ in Zambia.

Unsurprisingly, the Guidelines confirm that in respect of cartel conduct, “the fines to be imposed will be the highest due to the seriousness of the conduct”. Furthermore, the Guidelines state that “preceding such fines may be conviction for criminal culpability by a Court of Competent jurisdiction”.

In terms of the Competition and Consumer Protection Act (the “Act”), a firm’s potential liability is capped at 10% of its turnover derived within or from Zambia (similar to the EU’s 10% turnover cap), although the implementation of this cap is uncertain as we indicate below.

The Guidelines state that the 10% cap should be based on the latest audited financial years. While the CCPC will accept management accounts in certain circumstances, it should be noted that the CCPC will add 5% to the total as reflected in the management accounts.

Importantly, while the Guidelines recognise that an administrative penalty may be adjusted depending on aggravating or mitigating circumstances, the Guidelines provide, as a starting point, a ‘base fine’ which will be calculated in accordance with the nature of the contravention. We set these out below.

Base (%)

Conduct

7 Cartels
4 Resale Price Maintenance
4 Abuse of Dominance
3 Mergers
5 Restrictive Business Practices

 

John Oxenham, an African competition law practitioner, notes that the ‘base fine’ is “calculated utilising a firm’s aggregated turnover generated in or from Zambia, irrespective of the relevant market. In other words, the CCPC considers a firm’s total turnover in Zambia as the affected turnover, which can cause fines to mushroom in the case of diversified conglomerates with large revenues even where the affected, cartelised product market is de minimis.”

Importantly, in relation to prohibited horizontal or vertical conduct, the CCPC will impose a fine based on each year in which the parties contravened the Act, up to a maximum of five years. While the Guidelines as noted above, expressly state that the total penalty will be capped at the statutory cap of 10%. In light of the fact that the base fines start at 4% (which would in any evet exceed the statutory cap after only 2.5 years) it seems that the CCPC is of the view that each year in which a firm engaged in cartel conduct should be viewed as a separate contravention (i.e. that the statutory cap only applies per contravention). This will need to be clarified as a firm who is found to have engaged in anti-competitive conduct (including vertical restrictive practices) may be subjected to an exorbitant administrative fine.

It remains to be seen whether the significant administrative liabilities which is contemplated in terms of the Guidelines is indeed permissible and in accordance with the Act, and secondly, whether it will incentivise firms to take advantage of the CLP.