The South African Competition Commission (“SACC”) has not spared any time in demonstrating its bench strength by publishing three draft Terms of Reference for as many separate market inquiries within the first four months of 2023.
This article provides a brief overview in respect of the: Fresh Produce market inquiry (“FPMI”); Media and Digital Platforms market inquiry (“MDPMI”); and South African Steel Industry market inquiry (“SASMI”) and what this all means for firms across these varying sectors.
What is a Market Inquiry and what is its Purpose?
In brief, a market inquiry is an investigative tool used by the SACC to identify whether there are any aspects of a particular market that impedes, distorts or restricts competition by asking industry stakeholders for information regarding their business, its operations within a specific market as well as the market in general.
On 14 February 2023, the SACC published the final Terms of Reference for the FPMI which seeks to identify and understand the state of competition within the industry, market features affecting pricing outcomes and the challenges faced by, in particular, small and emerging farmers.
The FPMI will focus on the following themes:
Efficiency of the value chain, with an emphasis on the dynamics around fresh produce market facilities;
Market dynamics of key inputs and its impact on producers; and
Barriers to entry, expansion and participation.
The Terms of Reference also provide that the FPMI will focus on, in particular: apples, bananas, oranges / citrus, stone fruit, pears, avocados, grapes and nuts, potatoes, onions, tomatoes, sweetcorn, carrots and cabbage and will also extend to processed fruit and vegetables.
Most notably, the FPMI concerns the entire value chain, including inputs (such as fertiliser, agrochemicals and farming equipment), production, wholesalers, intermediaries, national fresh produce markets, distribution, marketing and retailers.
Given that the SACC views the fresh produce sector as a priority sector, it is foreseeable that the SACC will place increased scrutiny in its investigations across the value chain. This is particularly in light of recent and controversial Essential Food Price Monitoring Report which concluded that there were reasons to suspect that firms across the value chain may have engaged in opportunistic price increases
All Things Digital: MDPMI
On 17 March 2023, the SACC announced and published the draft Terms of Reference for the MDPMI.
The MDPMI appears to largely come off the back of several inquiries and investigations led by competition authorities globally, on the impact of digital platforms on news media publishers that use these platforms to distribute content online as well as the SACC’s recent Online Intermediation Platforms Market Inquiry (“OIPMI”) where the Publishers Support Services made submissions that the widespread shift towards digital news consumption has resulted in a substantial decline in advertising revenue.
The MDPMI will focus on whether there are any market features in digital platforms that distribute news media content which impede, distort or restrict competition, or undermine the purposes of the Competition Act, 89 of 1998 (“Competition Act”), and which have material implications for the news media sector of South Africa, which includes news publishers and broadcasters. The scope of the market inquiry will extend to the following digital platforms:
Search engines (e.g. Google Search and Microsoft Bing);
Social media sites (e.g. Meta);
News aggregator sites and/or apps (e.g. Google News and Apple News);
Video sharing platforms (e.g. YouTube and Tiktok);
Generative AI services whether integrated into the above platforms or not (e.g. ChatGPT alone or integrated with Bing); and
Other platforms identified in the course of the inquiry.
Evidently, the MDPMI will be far reaching and will also extend to emerging technologies, such as open AI search engines.
The draft Terms of Reference can be accessed here.
South African Steel Industry market inquiry (“Steel Industry Inquiry”)
On 07 April 2023, the SACC published the draft Terms of Reference for the Steel Industry Inquiry, and will focus particularly on inputs and raw materials (such as iron ore and coking oil) and the upstream primary steel production. The SACC notes specifically that:
Based on 2018 estimates, the three largest market participants in the mining of iron ore account for more than 95% of total ore mined in the country with the largest participant having a market share in excess of 55% while the third-largest iron ore miner held a market share of approximately 15% which, alongside large levels of production, may result in a large degree of market power. The SACC also states that there is a need to assess the pricing mechanisms adopted by iron ore producers in South Africa to ensure the competitiveness of steel producers.
It has received information that there were previously contractual arrangements in respect to allocations of capacity on the Sishen-Saldanha railway line which may result in competitive concerns. The SACC has also received complaints of differential pricing whereby larger rail customers are provided favourable rates in comparison to emerging miners.
The SACC highlights that South African steel manufacturers rely heavily on imported coking oil which could negatively impact the sustainability of the local steel manufacturing market due to import taxes and which may allow local producers to set their prices at import parity levels.
The SACC considers it important to determine whether, inter alia, there are any policy interventions to encourage the local production of coking oil and the entering of new market participants.
Upstream Primary Steel Production
In its Terms of Reference, the SACC notes that there is a considerable degree of market concentration with there only being three blast furnace plants in South Africa (of which are all owned by one company). Additionally, there are six electric arc furnaces which are owned by six different companies.
The SACC also notes that he pricing behaviour of upstream suppliers, in relation to the supply of long and flat steel, may have a direct impact on the ability of downstream metal fabricators to be competitive in their respective markets. Additionally, the SACC also identified that there may be high barriers to entry in the upstream level of steel production which has the ability to increase the capital requirements for entry and sustainability in various markets in the upstream level.
The Terms of Reference are open for public comment until 05 May 2023 and can be accessed here.
What do market inquiries mean for industry stakeholders?
As is evident from the scopes of the above market inquiries, market inquiries provide the SACC with broad and seemingly unfettered powers to investigate competitive dynamics within a particular sector.
More importantly, the Competition Act affords the SACC with the powers to publish binding recommendations to specifically redress any anticompetitive effects that it identifies within a market during the course of a market inquiry. In this respect, companies which may be approached by the SACC during the course of its investigations are encouraged to seek specialised competition law advice to ensure that the proper information and legal safeguards are provided to mitigate against the imposition of onerous industry recommendations.
South African Competition Commission’s Fresh Produce Market Inquiry & its Final Terms of Reference
By Gina Lodolo
Pursuant to the South African Competition Commission’s (“Commission”), draft terms of reference into an inquiry into the Fresh Produce Market, on 14 February 2023, the final terms of reference into the Fresh Produce Market Inquiry (“FPMI”) were published in the Government Gazette, marking 20 business days before the start of the FPMI.
Market Inquiries are instituted by Section 43B(1)(a) of the Competition Act 89 of 1998, as amended (“the Act”), which provides that “the Competition Commission […] may conduct a market inquiry at any time […] if it has reason to believe that any feature or combination of features of a market for any goods or services impedes, distorts or restricts competition within that market; or (ii) to achieve the purposes of this Act”.
The terms of reference to the FPMI indicate a focus on the entire fresh produce value chain (fruits and vegetables). In particular, the main fruits on the Commissions radar are apples, bananas, oranges / citrus, stone fruit, pears, avocados, grapes and nuts, while the main vegetables are potatoes, onions, tomatoes, sweetcorn, carrots and cabbage (fresh and processed).
Of importance is that the terms of reference do not only find application to the fresh produce itself, rather the scope of the inquiry relates to the entire value chain, including considerable inputs, such as fertiliser, equipment, water and agrochemicals. The terms of reference show that every stage of the value chain will be assessed and broken down as follows: inputs, production, wholesalers and intermediaries (agents), national fresh produce markets (where wholesale of fresh produce between producers and buyers occur), distribution, marketing and retailers.
Particular focus will be placed on value chain efficiency, the market dynamic surrounding significant inputs and any barriers to entry, expansion and participation.
Market Inquiries initiated by the Commission are significant because the Competition Amendment Act introduced broader remedial powers to the Commission who, after the conclusion of a market inquiry, can remedy structural features identified as having an adverse effect on competition in a market by utilising, inter alia, a recommendation of a divestiture order to the Competition Tribunal under section 60(2)(c) of the Act.
Broadly, the terms of reference highlights that the Commission, not only views the food and agro-processing sector as a priority sector but will be utilizing this sector “as a driver of inclusive growth in the South African economy”. This is of importance as the Commission is increasingly imposing public interest conditions – and in particular the promotion of Historically Disadvantaged Persons ownership – in competitively benign mergers that are also neutral into terms of public interest concerns. As fresh produce has been earmarked as a priority sector by the Commission, it will not come as a surprise if this market inquiry further emboldens the Commissions current trajectory to increasingly impose public interest conditions on merging parties.
Unless an extension is granted by the Minister of Trade, Industry and Competition, the Commission is statutorily obligated to conclude the market inquiry within 18 months.
Primerio Ltd Partner, John Oxenham commented that “the final terms of reference confirm the Commission’s intent on utilising the robust market inquiry mechanism to further not only pure competition initiatives, but more importantly, socio-economic redress mechanisms. The FPMI will result in likely structural changes to the fresh produce market and all entities involved should seek robust counsel prior to commencement of the inquiry.”
By Jemma Muller & Gina Lodolo/ edits by Charl van der Merwe
The South African Competition Commission (SACC) indicated its intent to formally initiate a market inquiry in the Online Intermediation Platforms Market (Inquiry), in terms of section 43B(1)(a) of the Competition Act 89 of 1998 (as amended) (CompetitionAct).
In terms of the amended Competition Act, the SACC has the power to conduct a market inquiry at any time, “if it has reason to believe that any feature or combination of features of a market or any goods or services impedes, distorts or restricts competition within that market.
The SACC published its draft Terms of Reference (ToR), allowing members of the public until 12 March 2021 to submit their comments on the scope of the Inquiry.
The ToR envisage a limited scope of assessment, to include only online intermediation services and, in particular, eCommerce marketplaces; online classifieds; travel and accommodation aggregators; short term accommodation intermediation; food delivery; app stores (with the notable exclusion of ‘fintech’).
The Inquiry will be focused on both competition and public interest factors and will aim to consider:
market features that may hinder competition amongst the platforms themselves;
market features that give rise to discriminatory or exploitative treatment of business users; and
market features that may negatively impact on the participation of SMEs and/or HDI owned firms
According to the SACC in the ToR, these platforms have been flagged as they have the potential to self-preference and distort markets through algorithms, which is harmful to businesses who rely on these platforms to reach consumers.
The Inquiry follows shortly on the back of the SACC’s “Competition in the Digital Economy” report (Report), which was published for public comment in the final quarter of 2020. In the Report, the SACC specifically identified market inquiries are an effective tool to address market barriers (especially for Small Medium Enterprises (SME) and historically disadvantaged individuals (HDP)) and to address market feature concerns which may lead to reduced competition.
Allied to this, the ToR goes on to state, in support of the Inquiry, that the use of intermediation services can provide a manner of entry into a market for SMEs/ HDPs, but due to the potential distortions of the market, may also discriminate against them. As a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, domestic online business opportunities are vital in ensuring economic recovery as well as inclusive growth of SMEs and HDPs.
The Inquiry will be the first inquiry in terms of the Competition Act as amended. In this regard, the amended Competition Act empowers the SACC to “take action to remedy, mitigate or prevent the adverse effect on competition”. This includes imposing structural or behavioural remedies.
It is also notable that the standard of assessment for market inquiries is a lower standard that that required in complaint proceedings. The SACC need only find that certain elements of the market may have “adverse effect on competition” (as opposed a substantial lessening of competition).
In light of these facts, firms in the relevant market cannot afford to remain passive participants in market inquiries and, instead, must consider and respond to the inquiry, as a respondent.
On 9-10 September 2019, the Comesa Competition Commission (CCC) hosted its 6th “Regional Sensitization Workshop for Business Reporters on Competition Law and Trade Developments within the Common Market” workshop in Nairobi, Kenya as part of its advocacy initiative to promote competition law and enforcement activities across the COMESA region.
AfricanAntitrust, having attended last year’s event, was again invited to attend the event and senior contributor and competition lawyer, Michael-James Currie, attended the event on behalf of AAT and participated in a serious of panel discussions and informal interactive sessions with members of the CCC and Competition Authority of Kenya.
The workshop was well attended with a year on year increase in attendees reflecting the importance and popularity of this initiative. The CCC should be congratulated on a well organized and structured workshop.
Patrick Okilangole, Board Chairperson of the CCC, opened the event by highlighting the importance of competitive domestic markets to “realize the benefits of trade; multilateral and bilateral trade agreements recognize the need to guarantee that restrictive business practices do not hinder the positive effects of free trade”.
Protectionist policies was identified by Okilangole as one of the key impediments to effective regional growth and trade. More specifically, Okilangole highlighted the following consequences of protectionist policies:
“(i) Ineffective competition policy frameworks. Over the past few years, competition law has been enacted in several Member States of the Common Market. However, in some countries, competition frameworks have included:
(ii) unjustified and discretionary exemptions, for example, utilities managed by the state in key economic sectors,
(iii) lack of sufficient investigative powers and tools in the current national and regional legislation to deter anticompetitive behaviour,
(iv) lack of independency in decision making since competition agencies report to and their decisions may be vetoed by a ministry, and
(v) significant government intervention in markets such as price controls in potentially competitive markets, controlling essential products, margins, and geographic areas.”
Okilangole reaffirmed the true hallmark of an effective competition law regime, namely that competition law should be focused on protecting the competitive process and not a particular competitor. “The rules are not meant to punish large companies on account of their size or commercial success. The key feature of the competition rules is to create a level playing field for all business players in the market.”
Okilangole’s remarks were echoed by the Chief Executive Officer of the CCC, George Lipimile who emphasised the need to move away from protectionist policies in order to realise the benefits that flow from increased regional trade.
Restrictive business practices, particularly abuse of dominance practices and collusion were identified by Lipimile as being particularly prevalent within COMESA and that increased enforcement activities are required, both by the CCC and regional agencies, to detect and prosecute anti-competitive behaviour.
The workshop was also used as an opportunity to present and engage on the CCC’s Guidelines on Restrictive Business Practices (which were approved in April 2019). The objective of the Guidelines is to provide greater clarity, predictability and transparency in relation to the analytical framework which will be used to evaluate alleged anti-competitive conduct. The Guidelines also provide greater guidance on the process and circumstances in which the CCC may grant exemptions.
The CCC was well represented (so to was the CAK) and senior investigators, analysts and members from the executive team provided useful insights into the enforcement activities of the CCC as well as what lay ahead in the pipeline. Attendees were invited to engage, debate and where appropriate raise concerns regarding the efficacy of competition law enforcement in COMESA. It is this willingness to be open and engage proactively with constructive criticism which is perhaps the hallmark of this CCC initiative and certainly welcomed by the attendees.
As to enforcement updates, the CCC put together comprehensive presentations both in relation to merger control and restrictive business practices more generally. We highlight some of the more noteworthy developments below.
Willard Mwemba, manager of mergers and acquisitions at the CCC, confirmed that over 230 transactions have been notified to the CCC between 2013 and July 2019. Of these, 17 were approved subject to conditions.
From a merger trend perspective, the CCC witnessed an increased shift in merger notifications in traditional sectors, such as agriculture and construction, to emerging sectors such as energy, banking and financial services with the most active member states including Kenya, Zambia, Mauritius, Zimbabwe and Uganda.
As to merger activity in COMESA, Mwemba confirmed that there has been a decrease in merger activity in the first half of 2019, largely as a result of a decrease in global activity and that the value of transactions that occurred within the first half of 2019 dropped from USD 527 billion to USD 319 billion for the same period in 2018. This is also consistent with the 19% decrease in the number of notifiable transactions globally.
The combined total turnover value of all mergers assessed by the CCC to date amounts to over USD 110 billion. Although 2019 figures were not presented, the CCC highlighted that total Foreign Direct Investment in COMESA grew in 2016 from USD 18.6 billion to USD 19.3 billion in 2017 representing nearly half of Africa’s total FDI inflows. Again, highlighting the significance of the COMESA market in the global space.
Although the CCC has had an active merger control regime in place for many years, a number of commentators have raised the lack of robustly investigated and prosecuted abuse of dominance or cartel cases as a key hindrance to effective competition law enforcement in COMESA. While the CCC acknowledges that more should be done in this regard, below is a list of non-merger matters which the CCC has concluded in past three years:
Affected Member States
Assessment of the supply agreement between Eveready East Africa Limited and Supreme Imports Limited
Assessment of the supply agreement between Eveready East Africa Limited and Sayyed Engineers Limited
Assessment of the supply agreement between Eveready East Africa Limited and Chloride Egypt SAE
Burundi, DRC, Ethiopia, Kenya, Rwanda, Uganda
Assessment of the Distribution Agreement between John Deere (Proprietary) Limited and AFGRI Zimbabwe Private Limited
Assessment of the Distribution Agreement between the Wirtgen Group and the Motor Engineering Company of Ethiopia
Agriculture and Construction Equipment
Assessment of the Distribution Agreement between the Wirtgen Group and UMCL Limited
Agriculture and Construction Equipment
Comoros, Mauritius, Seychelles
Assessment of the Distribution Agreement between the Wirtgen Group and Sodirex SA, Madagascar
Road Construction Machinery
Application for the Joint Venture Agreement between Kenya Airways PLC, Koninklijke Luchvaart Maatscahppij NV (KLM) and Societe Air France SA
Assessment of the distribution agreements between Unilever Market Development (Pty) Limited and Distributors in the Common Market
DRC, Madagascar, Mauritius,
Determination of Anti-Competitive Conduct: Procedure of Commission on its own volition
Affected Member States
Investigation into the Distribution Agreements entered into between Eveready East Africa Limited and Clorox Sub Saharan Africa
Investigation into the Distribution Agreements entered into between Parmalat SA (Pty) Limited and its Distributors
Milk and dairy products
Eswatini, Malawi, Zambia and Zimbabwe
Investigation into the Distribution Agreements between Coca-Cola Beverages Africa and Distributors in the Common Market
Comoros, Ethiopia, Uganda
False or Misleading Representation
Affected Member States
Misleading Advertising by Fastjet Airlines Limited
Kenya, Uganda, Zambia, Zimbabwe
The CCC also confirmed that they are currently conducting a number of market screening initiatives across priority sectors. Following the conclusion of these screening exercises, the CCC will decide whether to prosecute any firms engaged in restrictive business practices.
As part of the CCC’s efforts in detecting and investigating anti-competitive behavior, the CCC has increased its collaborative efforts with domestic member agencies and has established the “Restrictive Business Practices Network” to increase the efficacy of cross-border cases.
[Michael-James Currie speaking on a panel discussion on “How to improve the quality of reporting on regional integration and competition law related matters” facilitated by Mr Mwangi Gakunga from the Competition Authority of Kenya]
In light of the tripartite negotiations between SADC-EAC-COMESA as well as the negotiation of competition policy in terms of the African Continental Free Trade Agreement, it is imperative that the CCC develops an effective competition enforcement regime which assists and incentivizes free trade across the relevant markets. To do so, the CCC must be equipped with the necessary resources to ensure that it has the capacity to effectively execute its policies.
Despite the significant challenges faced by the CCC, it is encouraging to note that the CCC is taking a more robust approach to detecting and prosecuting anti-competitive practices in the COMESA market and are endeavoring to do so in accordance with international best practices.
If the CCC is able to deliver on the objectives and action items which were discussed in detail at the workshop, then there is every reasons to look forward to a more active CCC in the months to come with interesting cases likely to be brought to the fore.
The South African Competition Commission (“SACC”) on Wednesday 29 May 2019 released its interim report on its findings in the Grocery Retail Sector Market Inquiry (“Inquiry”).
The Inquiry’s terms of reference, published in October 2015, mandated the SACC to investigate:
“The impact of the expansion, diversification and consolidation of national supermarket chains on small and independent retailers in townships, peri-urban and rural areas and the informal economy;
The impact of long term exclusive lease agreements entered into between property developers and national supermarket chains, and the role of financiers in these agreements on competition in the grocery retail sector;
The dynamics of competition between local and foreign national operated small and independent retailers in townships, peri-urban areas, rural areas and the informal economy;
The impact of regulations, including inter alia municipal town planning and by-laws on small and independent retailers in townships, peri-urban areas, rural areas and the informal economy;
The impact of buyer groups on small and independent retailers in townships, periurban areas, rural areas and the informal economy;
The impact of certain identified value chains on the operations of small and independent retailers in townships, peri-urban areas, rural areas and the informal economy.”
The Inquiry received extensive submissions from industry stakeholders including large grocery retailers (“larger retailers”), FMCG suppliers, banks, shopping center property developers (“property developers”) and small and independent retailers. The public hearings of the Inquiry were held in all major cities during April 2017 to November 2017 with further ‘informal hearings’ in smaller towns across South Africa. The Interim Report was hailed by SACC Commissioner, Tembinkosi Bonakele (“Commissioner”) at the media briefing on 29 May 2019 as the most comprehensive study into all elements of the grocery retail sector.
Industry stakeholders will have a further opportunity to engage with the SACC on the findings of the interim report and to present further written submissions before Friday 28 June 2019. The Final Report is expected to be released on 30 September 2019.
Long Term Exclusive Lease Agreements and Rental Costs
The Inquire placed great emphasis on the practice of long term exclusive lease agreements entered into between large retailers and property developers apropos new shopping malls and other property developments. The Inquiry found that these exclusive lease agreements range for periods of up to 45 years, constituting what the Inquiry termed unnecessary artificial barriers to entry.
A central focus of the Inquiry was the significant market power of the large retailers which enable large retailers to negotiate long term exclusive lease agreements, lower rental fees and more favorable rebates from suppliers.
The Inquiry found that property developers are reliant on the large retailers’ participation in new property developments (as anchor tenants) as they attract customers to the development and are also required by banks and other financial houses to advance funding to property developers. It is noteworthy that the Inquiry found that contrary to the submissions made by large retailers, finance houses do not demand exclusivity (only a fixed terms commitment from an anchor tenant). The practice of exclusivity was introduced by the large retailers as compensation for risk.
The Inquiry found that the prevalence of the long term exclusive lease agreements had the effect of reinforcing the levels of concentration in the market as the ‘process’ repeats itself which each new development. While this does mean that new competitors are foreclosed from the market, significantly, it also excludes small and independent specialist retailers such as butcheries, bakeries etc, which, according to the Inquiry, deprive consumers of ‘bespoke’ or ‘craft’ products which characterizes the retail sector in other areas of the world.
The Inquiry found the submissions made by the large retailers as ‘not compelling’ and has recommended that:
Large retailers immediately cease enforcing exclusivity provisions against specialty stores (which was undertaken by the large retailers); and
Exclusivity clauses be ‘phased out’ within 3 years (and no new lease agreements be entered into that contain exclusivity) in order to allow new entrants into developments.
A second but related finding of the Inquiry is that large retailers are able to use their bargaining power to negotiate lower rental fees in property developments which, according to the findings, causes property developers to increase rental fees for small and independent stores in order to ‘recoup’ the discount offered to the large retailers.
The Inquiry heard evidence from a variety of small retailers and specialty stores (as well as property developers) that the higher rental fees in property developments hinders entrance or leads to the failure of small retailers and specialty stores. Interestingly, the Inquiry did not make any recommendations in this regard and, instead, called for further submissions on the commercial realities and possible remedies.
The Inquiry found that that the large retailers also enjoy significant market power, compared to independent retailers and wholesalers, as they provide a key route to market for suppliers. Accordingly, the Inquiry found that large retailers are able to extract more favorable trading terms than that which wholesalers and/or buying groups are able to negotiate. Interestingly, however, the Inquiry found that large retailers are able to extract larger rebates than buyer groups, despite the larger volumes purchased by buyer groups.
According to the SACC chief economist, James Hodge, the primary concern is not ‘basic rebates’ which are also available to buyer groups and wholesalers but rather the ‘special retail rebates’ (e.g. distribution center rebates, store opening rebates, advertising rebates etc.) which are not available to wholesalers or buying groups.
In this regard, the Inquiry found that the justification for these ‘special retail rebates’ are unconvincing as the knock-on effect is that the independent retailers or specialty stores at the retail level (who purchase stock from wholesalers and buyer group) face higher costs and cannot compete with the large retailers.
The Inquiry recognizes that rebates are not inherently anti-competitive and can often be justified. The Inquiry further found that the current rebate structures cannot be easily changed without commercial disruption. The Inquiry, therefore, did not make any recommendations and, instead, invited industry stakeholders to engage with the Inquiry in order to address the issue.
The Inquiry also recommend intervention, through regulation, by a “single government department”. The department was not specified due to the uncertainty on whether the Economic Development Department (“EDD”) will remain in its current form. The EDD has now been subsumed into the Department of Trade and Industry (“DTI”), which will be headed by former EDD minister, Minister Ebrahim Patel. The DTI is, therefore, likely to be nominated as the relevant governmental department.
As an alternative, the Inquiry recommend an industry code of conduct, which requires buy in from industry stakeholders to agree on and implement policies which would otherwise cause commercial disruption. Industry codes appear to be increasingly finding favour with the SACC as a form of soft enforcement. There is currently a draft Code of Conduct published in relation to the Automotive Aftermarket.
In this regard, the SACC Commissioner noted that the grocery retail sector is a sector which is known around the world for being highly regulated and, according to the Inquiry, is not conducive to the levels of concentration experienced in South Africa. The Commissioner, therefore, remarked that the sector cannot wait for the slow and costly process of regulating conduct through enforcement and should, instead, be remedied through ideally am industry code of conduct and/or regulation.
Asked to comment on the impact of the Code, John Oxenham says that “the timing of the Code is noteworthy in light of the Competition Amendment Act and draft buyer power and price discrimination regulations having been published. Dominant entities involved in the FMCG sector, will likely have to carefully evaluate their trading terms to ensure that they are objectively justifiable not only in light of traditional competition law principles but also public interest related objectives“.
Fellow competition lawyer, Michael-James Currie concurs with Oxenham and suggests that “while rebates can be anti-competitive, there needs to be robust evidence and a clear theory of harm before an anti-competitive finding. This ordinarily requires a case specific assessment based on the facts at hand which may make ‘industry wide’ reforms difficult to monitor and enforce. Likewise, rebates are nor per se anti-competitive and therefore industry wide reforms or blanket thresholds may have unintended consequences and potentially have adverse effects on consumer welfare.”
Oxenham suggests that a “carefully balanced approach must be taken in this regard, although this appears to be recognized by the SACC“.
It is clear from the Report that industry participants will ultimately need to justify and support any alleged pro-competitive effects based on clear and objective evidence.
Second Non-Merger Investigation Opened by COMESA Enforcer
Coca-Cola’s Africa operations — recently sold in a majority shareholder exit in late 2016 by Anheuser-Busch InBev (which owned 54.5%) — were due for a major overhaul of the company’s long-term strategic plan to grow its market presence across Africa. Yet, it is now under investigation for restrictive trade practices by the COMESA Competition Commission (“CCC”).
This is a first, of sorts: After the CCC’s original non-merger investigation into exclusive marketing practices of broadcasting rights and sponsorship agreements in relation to football tournaments (AAT reported here) ended — or hasn’t ended — with something of a thud (nothing having been reported by way of conclusion thereof), we and the world’s largest soft drink manufacturer are bracing ourselves for the outcome, if any, of the latest COMESA salvo delivered by the CCC to prove its worth to its Board. (We surmise so as this latest, second-ever, non-merger investigation may have been prompted at least in part by the fact that the CCC’s budget was recently slashed by the regional body, and that the Commission wishes to reestablish itself in the eyes of the COMESA directorate as a worthwhile agency to fund and to bolster).
The COMESA “restrictive practices” investigation into Coca-Cola’s distribution agreements may come on the heels of its (announced, yet likely neither begun nor concluded) market enquiry into the grocery retail sector, similar to comparable market-wide investigations undertaken in Kenya and South Africa; moreover, the South African Competition Commission has likewise undertaken past investigations into restrictive vertical distribution practices engaged in by Coca-Cola in South Africa.
Actual or would-be soft drink competitors may have also brought claims of foreclosure to the CCC’s attention — likely alleging resale price maintenance, as well as possibly lack of access to key distributors due to Coca-Cola’s exclusive or quasi-exclusive contracts and the like. According to the official COMESA Notice, the agency is investigating allegations against The Coca-Cola Company’s African subsidiary (Coca-Cola Africa (Proprietary) Limited) in relation to its distribution agreements with downstream entities in Ethiopia and Comoros, both of which are COMESA member states, albeit historically rather inactive when it comes to competition-law enforcement.
According to the antitrust-specialist publication Global Competition Review, the CCC has stated that Coca-Cola’s alleged restrictive conduct worked as planned only rarely in practice. Yet, the agency’s spokesperson noted that the risk of anti-competitive effects remained real: “Coca-Cola is dominant in these countries, it is important that they do not abuse that dominance through distribution agreements which frustrate competition in the relevant markets”, the spokesperson said, according to GCR‘s reporting. The magazine also quoted Pr1merio antitrust lawyer Andreas Stargard as saying that the CCC can issue injunctions and impose fines of up to 10% of Coca-Cola’s turnover in the common market for the year prior to the conduct.
Stargard tells AAT further that “[a]ny agreement contravening Article 16 of the COMESA Regulations is automatically void. In addition, while the CCC is breaking new ground here (as it has not yet successfully brought any non-merger investigation to conclusion to date), the applicable Regulations foresee not only injunctive relief (cease-and-desist orders and conduct-based injunctions forcing the party to ‘take whatever action the Commission deems necessary to remove and/or diminish the effect of the illegal conduct’) but also fines, as cited above. However, no such fine has yet been imposed in any anti-competitive conduct investigation by the CCC.”
He continues: “Under the COMESA Competition Regulations, the agency normally has an initial ‘consultative’ time period of 30-45 days to evaluate whether or not to launch a full-fledged investigation. This period may include meetings with the concerned party or parties, any complainant, or other stakeholders. Thereafter, if the Commission votes to open an investigation, the latter must be concluded within 180 days from the date of receipt of the request for the investigation, if it was brought by a complainant. Here, the official Notice provides that an investigation was in fact opened, meaning the clock has begun ticking.”
Interested stakeholders have until February 28, 2018 to issue comments.
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”.
Patel’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).
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.
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”.
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”.
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.
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”.
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.
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.”
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.
As John Oxenham and Patrick Smithhave 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 email@example.com]
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
The South African Competition Commission (SACC) recently announced that it will be conducting market inquiries into both the Public Passenger Transport sector (Transport Inquiry) as well as investigate the high costs of Data (Data Inquiry).
These inquiries are in addition to the SACC’s market inquiries into the private healthcare sector and grocery retail sector (which are still on-going) and the recently concluded LPG market inquiry.
There are mixed feelings about the benefits of market inquiries in South Africa. Market inquiries are extremely resource intensive (both from the SACC’s perspective as well as for the key participants in the inquiry) and the outcomes of the inquiries which have been concluded (including the informal inquiry in the banking sector) are lukewarm at best. There is little evidence available which suggests that the resources incurred in conducting market inquiries in South Africa are proportional to the perceived or intended pro-competitive outcomes.
Leaving aside this debate for now, the SACC’s most recent market inquiries are particularly interesting for a variety of additional reasons.
Firstly, in relation to the Transport Inquiry, the Terms of Reference (ToR) set out the objectives and the key focus areas of the inquiry. In this regard, the ToR indicate that pricing regulation is one of the key factors which allegedly creates an uneven playing field between metered taxis for example and app-based taxi services such as Uber.
It should be noted that the metered taxi association of South Africa had previously and unsuccessfully submitted a complaint to the SACC against Uber for alleged abuse of dominance. The success of Uber in South Africa has widely been regarded as pro-competitive.
Both prior and subsequent to the complaint against Uber, however, an overwhelming number of metered taxi drivers (both legal and illegal) have resorted to deliberate violent tactics in order to preclude Uber drivers from operating in key areas (i.e. at train stations). In fear of having themselves, their passengers and their vehicles harmed, many Uber drivers oblige. It would be most interesting to see how the SACC tackles this most egregious forms of cartel conduct, namely market allocation (albeit entered into under duress).
Over and above the ‘metered taxi v Uber’ debate, there are additional issues which the Transport Inquiry will focus on – including alleged excessive pricing on certain bus routes, regulated route allocation and ethnic transformation within the industry.
What will likely become a topic (directly or indirectly) during the Transport Inquiry are the allegations, as African Antitrust (AAT) had previously reported, that ‘the “taxi and bus” industry is riddled with collusive behaviour. In light of the fact that most of South Africa’s indigent are fully dependent on taxis for transportation in South Africa and spend a significant portion of their disposal income on taxi fees, this is an issue which needs to be addressed urgently by the competition agencies by acting “without fear, favour or prejudice”’.
In this regard, the ToR indicates that “between 70% and 80% of the South African population is dependent on public passenger transport for its mobility”. The majority of these individuals would make use of ‘minibus taxis’.
The Transport Inquiry ToR do not mention this seemingly most blatant violation of competition law principles and it remains to be seen to what extent the SACC’s is prepared to investigate and assess hardcore collusion in the industry.
In relation to the second market inquiry, the SACC will also conduct an inquiry in relation to the high data costs in South Africa.
The High costs of data in South Africa seems to be key issue from the government’s perspective and the Minister of Economic Development, Mr Ebrahim Patel called for the SACC to conduct an inquiry into this sector. Further, the high costs of data in South Africa seems so important to economic growth and development that the Minister of Finance, Mr Malusi Gigaba, not only echoed Minister Patel’s calls for a market inquiry into high data costs, but identified such a market inquiry as part of his ‘14 point action plan’ to revive the South African economy.
Given that the three formal market inquiries which the SACC has commenced with to date have, only one (the LPG inquiry) has been finalized. Even the LPG inquiry took nearly three years to conclude. The private healthcare inquiry and the grocery retail inquiry which commenced in 2014 and 2015 respectively, still seem someway off from reaching any finality.
The length of time taken to conclude a market inquiry is, however, not the end of the matter from a timeline perspective. Following a market inquiry, recommendations must be made to Parliament. These recommendations may include legislative reforms or other remedies to address identified concerns with the structure of the market. Parliament may or may not adopt these recommended proposal.
Accordingly, it seems unlikely that from the date a market inquiry commences, that there will be any pro-competitive gains to the market within 5-7 years. That is assuming that the market presents anti-competitive features which can be remedies through legislative reform
While there appears to be consensus among most that data costs in South Africa are disproportionately high when compared to a number of other developing economies, the positive results envisaged to flow from a market inquiry is not only difficult to quantify, but will only be felt, if at all, a number of years down the line. Hardly a first step to revive the economy on a medium term outlook (let alone the short term).
Furthermore, and entwined with the SACC’s market inquiry into Data Costs, is that the Independent Communications Authority of South Africa (“ICASA”) decided to also conduct a market inquiry into the telecommunications sector, which includes focusing on the high costs of data. ICASA has indicated that it will liaise with other regulatory bodies including the SACC.
It is not clear what level of collaboration will exist between the SACC and ICASA although one would hope that due to the resource intensive nature of market inquiries, there is minimal duplication between the two agencies – particularly as their objectives would appear identical.
As a concluding remark, absent evidence which convincingly supports the beneficial outcomes of market inquiries in South Africa, perhaps a key priority for the authorities is to conclude the current inquiries as expeditiously as possible and conduct an assessment of the benefits of market inquiries (particularly in the manner in which they are presently being conducted), before initiating a number of additional market inquiries.
On 27 January 2017, the Competition Authority of Kenya (CAK) exercised its powers in terms of section 18 (1) (a) of the Competition Act, 2010, to conduct a market inquiry into the branded retail sector.
The notice, as published in the Government Gazette and signed by CAK Director General Wang’ombe Kariuki stated that “the main objective of the study is to assess the state of competition in the market for branded retail by examining the multilayered structure of the market and the conduct of market players. The market inquiry will explore the dimensions and the intensity of competition between branded retailers and how these impact on price, quality and range of offerings to the Kenyan consumer.”
The CAK is the third African competition agency to conduct a market inquiry into the retail sector following inquiries in Botswana and South Africa. The COMESA Competition Commission has also announced that it intends to conduct a market inquiry into the retail food sector, although to date the CCC has not formally initiated such an inquiry.
Unsurprisingly, the focus of the CAK’s inquiry is strikingly similar to the grocery retail market inquiry currently under way in South Africa, with both authorities focusing their attention on large retailers who allegedly engage in practices which distorts competition in the market. In particular, the CAK will focus on the following issues:
the allocation of shelf space and the relative bargaining power between retailers and their suppliers;
the nature of and the extent of exclusive agreements at one stop shop destinations and their effects on competition;
the pricing strategies retailers employ especially in regards to responding to new entrants;
whether there are any strategic barriers to entry created by incumbent firms to limit entry in the market; and
the effect of the supermarkets branded products on competition.
The issues listed above are largely common focus areas in market inquiries conducted not only in Africa but also in a number of European countries including France, Germany, Italy, Turkey and the United Kingdom,
Interestingly, the CAK’s market inquiry goes broader than purely competition issues but also has an element of “consumer protection”. For instance, one of the practices which allegedly is a common feature in the industry is what is termed “dual pricing” – where Retailers display lower product prices on the shelf but which are higher at the till.
The CAK will also investigate the rate of recurrence of the sale of defective stock by retailers to consumers and how subsequent complaints by consumers are dealt with by retailers. The CAK intends to establish the proportion of retailers that have fully operational retail return policies and to what extent they are adhered to in an attempt to evaluate whether consumers are adequately protected.
Unlike the South African Competition Act, the Kenya Competition Act also contains specific consumer protection provisions which caters for unfair trade practices and transactions that affect consumer rights such as under-cutting and over-pricing of goods and services as well as the use of misleading information to sell goods and services. This is in addition to Kenya’s self-standing Consumer Protection Act which is governed by the Kenya Consumers Protection Advisory Committee (CPAC).
The CPAC is tasked with, inter alia, facilitating the “co-ordination and networking of consumer activities and the development of linkages with consumer organizations and the competent authorities and agencies locally and outside Kenya for the protection of consumer interests”. The CPAC is, therefore, responsible for monitoring and reviewing the trading and business practices relating to the supply of goods and services to consumers, and to activities related or ancillary thereto.
It remains to be seen to what extent the CPAC is actively involved in the CAK’s market inquiry, particularly in relation to the consumer protection provisions
Focusing our attention back to the competition law implications of the market inquiry, industry players across the retails chain should be particularly cognisant of the recent amendments to the Kenya Competition Act which introduced the concept of “abuse of buyer power”. Africanantitrust previously published an article by Michael-James Currie and Ruth Mosoti who noted that “it is not technically a requirement that a firm be ‘dominant’ in order to be considered to have “buying power”.
Furthermore, the introduction of the “abuse of buyer power” provisions was largely as a result of complaints received by the CAK in the retail sector, particularly by suppliers. In addition, the CAK may well have learnt from market inquiries conducted in other jurisdictions that absent any ‘dominance’ by retailers, there is a limited prospect of successfully prosecuting firms for engaging in practices which ay distort competition in the market. In this regard, Currie and Mosoti stated further that:
“the Kenyan Competition Authority may have thought to pre-empt this challenge and, therefore, included the “abuse of dominance” provisions without requiring a firm to actually be dominant for the provision to be triggered. Furthermore, the definition of “buying power” and the absence of any requirement that the conduct must in fact be anti-competitive may have been an attempt by the legislator to lower the threshold in an effort to assist a complainant in cases where a purchaser, such as a large retailer, exerts “buyer power”, but is not “dominant” in the market.”
Accordingly, in light of the broad scope of the CAK’s market inquiry coupled with the introduction of the ‘abuse of buyer power’ provisions, it is advisable for all players in the Kenyan retail sector to actively consider their business operations, not only from a competition perspective but also from a consumer protection perspective.