On 9th June 2022, the Minister of Trade, Industry and Competition, Mr Ebrahim Patel, announced his decision to appoint Ms. Doris Tshepe as the new Commissioner of the South African Competition Commission (“SACC”). Ms Tshepe will succeed outgoing Commissioner Tembinkosi Bonakele.
Minister Patel’s announcement comes as somewhat of a surprise to observers, given Commissioner Bonakele’s nine-year tenure and instrumentality in increasing merger and cartel enforcement within South Africa, whilst also advocating and advancing the role of the ‘public interest’ in both of these aspects. Under the leadership of Commissioner Bonakele, the SACC has been considered widely as an agency of international importance.
Commissioner Bonakele’s successor, Ms Doris Tshepe, is a well-regarded attorney with extensive experience. Her legal practice spans over 20 years, during which she specialised in constitutional and administrative law, legislative drafting, media and communication law, commercial law, competition law and employment law. Additionally, Ms Tshepe has significant investigatory experience, having been involved in the SACC’s previous market inquiries into the Liquid Petroleum Gas and Grocery Retail sectors as well as being a panel member for the recent Online Markets Inquiry. In addition to her investigative experience, Ms Tshepe also has legislative chops, having sat on a 2019 panel considering the recent amendments to the South African Competition Act. Says John Oxenham, a South African antitrust attorney: “Future Commissioner Tshepe’s long history of working with the SACC and others to shape the current enforcement approach of the agency (as well as its trajectory for the future) indicates that the Commission’s focus will remain steady and sharp. I do not foresee any wavering in the course of the SACC’s currently robust operations, due to the transition in its leadership.”
Bearing Ms Tshepe’s investigative history in mind, we can generally expect her to continue Commissioner Bonakele’s strong enforcement initiatives. Having been appointed to the panel on the amendment of the Competition Act, there is also a reasonable likelihood that we will see the SACC continue implementing, if not increasing, its long-standing public-interest agenda – particularly given the transformative socio-economic objects of South African legislation, say the competition practitioners at Primerio Ltd.
Lastly, we note that not all is over at the SACC for “Tembi” — Minister Patel has stated that there are discussions with outgoing Commissioner Bonakele regarding the delegation of an appropriate set of responsibilities that would allow him to utilize his skills and experience in competition and public policy after his departure. Again, although the details of these responsibilities are unknown, Minister Patel’s statement emphasizes the increased shift towards a public-policy centric competition regime.
Ms Tshepe is expected to assume her position as Commissioner of the Competition Commission during the course of September 2022.
To all our Africanantitrustfollowers, please take note of the upcoming American Bar Association webinar on 2 July 2019 (11amET/4pmUK/5pm CET) titled:
“Beyond Pure Competition Law – Is Africa Leading the Way Forward in Antitrust Enforcement?”
In what promises to be a highly topical (telecon) panel discussion, Eleanor Fox, Andreas Stargard, John Oxenham, Amira Abdel Ghaffar and Anthony Idigbe will:
provide critical commentary of the most recent developments in antitrust policy across the African continent;
highlight the most significant legislative amendments and enforcement activities in Africa; and
analyze some of the key enforcement decisions.
South Africa, Nigeria, Egypt, COMESA and Kenya are among the key jurisdictions under the microscope.
Practitioners, agency representatives, academics and anyone who is an antitrust enthusiast will find this webinar to be of great interest. Not to mention companies actually active or looking to enter the African market place.
For details on how to participate, please follow this Link
According to recent reports, Minister of the Department of Economic Development, Ebrahim Patel, will not be sworn in as a member of Parliament despite initially being listed on the African National Congress’ (ANC) Members of Parliament list.
Since Cyril Ramaphosa was voted as the ANC’s President, and hence South Africa’s President, there had been increasing speculation regarding where Minister Patel would complement Ramaphosa’s economic policies. With many political commentators initially expected Ramaphosa to relieve Patel of his position as the Minister of Economic Development soon after taking over the presidency reins, it appeared that Patel had convinced Ramaphosa that he was an integral part of the team. Patel even accompanied Ramaphosa as part of the “special economic envoy” on a series of international road shows promoting and encouraging foreign investment in South Africa.
At this stage it is not clear what the reasons are for Patel not forming part of the ANC’s list of Members of Parliament (a prerequisite to serving as a Cabinet Minister unless Patel serves as one of the two non-MP’s allowed to serve in Cabinet) ). Following the national elections on 8 May 2019, however, Ramaphosa has indicated that he is intent on reducing the size of the Cabinet which would necessarily require various government departments and portfolios to be consolidated. It may be that the Department of Economic Development (EDD) is consolidated with the Department of Trade and Industry (DTI). If this were the case, the South African competition authorities would then also fall under the auspices of the DTI and no longer under the EDD. Many of our readers may recall that the competition authorities previously fell under the policy stewardship of the DTI.
While it may be too early to speculate what the ramifications of Patel’s departure could mean for competition policy and enforcement in South Africa, John Oxenham, director at Primerio, says that “Minister Patel was one of the key proponents behind elevating the role of public interest considerations in merger control. The minister’s intervention in numerous transactions, particularly international deals has resulted in public interest conditions, the scope and nature of which, pushed the outer most limits of what is appropriate in competition policy when assessed against international standards”.
Minister Patel’s reputation for engaging in robust opposition to mergers prompted Ab-Inbev directors to engage directly with Patel rather than the Competition Commission in order to secure public interest related conditions which would placate the Minister – all in the hope of ensuring that the transaction sales through the merger control process unchallenged. Which it largely did.
Fellow competition lawyer, Michael-James Currie, says that another key element of Patel’s departure relates to the Competition Amendment Act which was signed into law by President Ramaphosa in February 2019. Currie says that “although the Act has been signed into law, the enforcement of a number of the provisions of the Amendment Act remains unclear. For example, there are draft guidelines published in relation to the “price discrimination” and “buyer power” provisions of the Amendment Act which completely do away with any standard of “adverse effect on competition” and even the “consumer welfare” standard is of no relevance when small, medium or historically disadvantaged persons may be affected. Currie says Patel’s departure may spark a fresh round of debate and submissions in relation to the draft regulations. Submissions which previously appeared to largely be ignored by Patel.”
Oxenham echoes Currie’s sentiments and is of the view that the Amendment Act, which was largely driven by Patel, may ultimately be interpreted and enforced by the competition agencies in a manner which is more consistent with international best practice. Of course, this would depend on who replaces Patel and whether there is a different policy view as to the role of competition law in South Africa by Patel’s successor.
A key concern raised by numerous commentators is that the subjectivity of public interest assessments together with the increasing intervention by the executive to extract non-merger specific public interest related conditions, particularly in foreign transactions, does little to boost South Africa’s image as being open to foreign investment.
While the on-going debate of the role of public interest considerations in merger control will continue well beyond Patel’s tenure as Minister of the EDD, the entire South African competition community will be watching closely Ramaphosa’s final Cabinet announcement as this would likely be the clearest indication of whether we could expect a material policy direction change fin South Africa insofar as competition law enforcement is concerned.
It carries with it significant, and in our view, adverse, effects that will burden companies trying to conduct business or invest in South Africa. These burdens will be particularly onerous on foreign entities wishing to enter the market by acquisitions, as well as any firm having a market share approaching the presumptive threshold of dominance, namely 35%
On Wednesday, 17 October 2018, the law firms of Primerio and Norton Incorporated held an in-depth seminar and round-table discussion on the ramifications of the Competition Amendment Bill. The setting was an intimate “fireside chat“ with business and in-house legal representatives from leading companies, active across a variety of sectors in the South African economy.
Moderated and given an international pan-African perspective by Primerio partner Andreas Stargard, the panel included colleagues John Oxenham and Michael-James Currie, who delved into the details of the proposed amendments to the existing Competition Act, covered extensively by AAT here.
As of today, 18 October 2018, the Bill appears set to be promulgated. The SA Parliament’s committee on economic development has rubber-stamped the proposed amendments after a prior committee walk-out staged by the opposition Democratic Alliance (DA), in opposition to the Bill. DA MP and economic development spokesperson Michael Cardo states:
“The ANC rammed the Competition Amendment Bill through the committee on economic development, and adopted a report agreeing to various amendments. To make sure they had the numbers for a quorum, the ANC bussed in two never-seen-before members to act as pliant yes men and women. Questions from the DA to the minister… This bill is going to have far-reaching consequences for the economy. It gives both the minister and the competition authorities a great deal of power to try and reshape the economy. It is unfortunate that the ANC, and the committee chair in particular, have suspended their critical faculties to force through this controversial bill and behaved like puppets on a string pulled by the minister of economic development.”
The Amendment Bill introduces significant powers for ministerial intervention and bestows greater powers on the Competition Commission, the investigatory body of the competition authorities in South Africa.
The panel discussion provided invaluable insights into the driving forces behind the Bill and ultimately what this means for companies in South Africa as it certainly won’t be business as usual if the Amendment Bill is brought into effect – particularly not for dominant entities.
[If you attended the panel discussion and would like to provide feedback to the panelists or would generally like to get in touch with the panelists, please send an email to email@example.com and we will put you in touch with the relevant individuals]
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 firstname.lastname@example.org]
While the media headlines are largely filled with the disruptions that took place at the State of the Nation Address (SONA) by President Jacob Zuma on 9 February 2017, the President made an important remark which, if true, may have a significant impact on competition law in South Africa, particular in relation to abuse of dominance cases.
In this regard, the President stated that:
“During this year, the Department of Economic Development will bring legislation to Cabinet that will seek to amend the Competition Act. It will among others address the need to have a more inclusive economy and to de-concentrate the high levels of ownership and control we see in many sectors. We will then table the legislation for consideration by parliament.
In this way, we seek to open up the economy to new players, give black South Africans opportunities in the economy and indeed help to make the economy more dynamic, competitive and inclusive. This is our vision of radical economic transformation.”
Neither the President nor Minister Patel have given any further clarity as to the proposed legislative amendments other than Patel’s remarks early in January 2017 in which he stated that:
“The review covers areas such as the efficacy of the administration of the Competition Act, procedural aspects in the investigation and prosecution of offences, matters relating to abuse of dominance, more effective investigations against cartels and the current public interest provisions of the act.“
Says John Oxenham, a competition attorney who has closely followed the legislative and policy developments, “despite the broad non-committal remarks by Minister Patel, it is clear that the Minister is zealous in having the ‘complex monopoly’ provisions brought into force to address in order to address, what the Minister perceives to be, significant abuse of dominance in certain concentrated markets.”
In terms of the provisions, as currently drafted, where five or less firms have 75% market share in the same market, a firm could be found to have engaged in prohibited conduct if any two or more of those firms collectively act in a parallel manner which has the effect of lessening competition in the market (i.e. by creating barriers to entry, charging excessive prices or exclusive dealing and “other market characteristics which indicate coordinated behavior”).
Despite having been promulgated in 2009, the ‘complex monopoly’ provisions have not yet been brought into effect largely due to the concerns raised as to how these provisions will be enforced, says Primerio Ltd.’s Andreas Stargard: “It is noteworthy that the introduction of criminal liability for directors and persons with management authority who engage in cartel conduct was also promulgated in 2009, but surprised most (including the Competition Authorities) when it was quite unexpectedly brought into force in 2016.”
Minister Patel was no doubt a key driving force behind the introduction of criminal liability and it would, therefore, not be surprising if the complex monopoly provisions are brought into force with equal swiftness in 2017.
The concept of single economic entities and intra-company conspiracies
This week, the South African Competition Commission and Minister Patel explained to the country’s National Assembly why they decided not to take any enforcement action against alleged collusion in the fisheries industry.
The most succinct answer is quite simple: in short, it’s “Copperweld” all over again.
If that answer does not suffice, let’s unpack this legal doctrine, founded upon the eponymous U.S. Supreme Court precedent from 1984. Continues Stargard:
Until the Supreme Court’s decision in Copperweld Corp. v. Independence Tube Corp., 467 U.S. 752 (1984), related corporations were generally perceived as separate entities capable of concerted activity, a view which came to be known as the “intra-enterprise conspiracy” doctrine. Since Copperweld, this doctrine is no longer valid law. Today, antitrust courts recognize the inherent unity of economic interest and purpose characterizing the relationship between a corporation and its wholly-owned subsidiary entities or business units, thus precludes any finding of illegal conspiracy between a corporation and its subs.
This theory is, evidently, whole-heartedly embraced by the SACC and Minister Patel, whose own short answer to “parliamentary inquiry #1995” from 23 September 2016 was simply: “All firms suspected of collusive conduct constituent firms within a single economic entity, so Act does not apply.” Not so fast, however, says Mr. Stargard, who admonishes that the “single economic entity” principle must be proven and cannot simply be assumed — substance always wins over form:
Copperweld teaches us to analyze the substance, not the form, of economic arrangements – it is therefore important that the “wholly-owned” character of the fisheries units by Sekunjalo not merely be a sham corporate construct to hide the truly competitively separate and distinct character of the entities; rather, it must be true ownership and control by the parent entity. This is particularly important here, where the parent is apparently a highly diversified PE-type entity.
At issue in the present SA case was Sekunjalo Investments Limited, Sekunjalo Marine Services Consortium, Premier Fishing SA (Pty) Ltd, and Premier Fishing Consortium. They were alleged to have entered into an agreement to collude by discussing and coordinating the preparation of their respective bids to the Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries in respect of a tender to supply marine patrol services to DAFF. In light of their nature as a single economic entity, no further investigation or enforcement is recommended.
South Africa signs cooperation agreements with Russia and Kenya
Leading government officials presented their respective countries’ accomplishments in the antitrust arena at the 10th annual Competition Law, Economics & Policy Conference in Cape Town yesterday.
The attendees ranged from the SA Minister of Economic Development, Ebrahim Patel, and the Commissioner of the Competition Commission, Tembinkosi Bonakele, to their Russian and Kenyan counterparts. Kenya Competition Authority director general Francis Kariuki emphasised the officials’ desire to remove barriers to trade. He was quoted as saying he looked forward to exchanging information on cross-border cartels, which affect both the South African and Kenyan economies: “We have regional economic communities and regional trade. There are some infractions in South Africa which are affecting Kenya and vice versa. We want to join hands to do market enquiries and do research. This will inform our governments when they come up with policies.”
On the inside-BRICS front, the SA Commission signed an MoU with Russia, adding to Russia’s “rich and diverse bilateral agreements portfolio.” The MoU is described as focussing particularly on pharmaceutical and automotive sectors, in which pending or future sectoral inquiries would see information-sharing between the Federal Antimonopoly Service (FAS) of Russia and the SACC, according to the FAS deputy chief Andrey Tsarikovskiy.
Mister Patel’s keynote address showed the glass half-full and half-empty, focussing in part on the need to “scale” the South African agency activity up to the level of the “success story” of domestic competition enforcement and its large caseload (quoting 133 new cartel cases initiated in the past year).
Never one to omit politicisation, Mr. Patel noted the perceived parallels he saw between South African history of concentrating economic power in the hands of a minority, raising indirectly the issue of public-interest concessions made in antitrust investigations, including M&A matters. Mr. Patel clearly sees the SACC’s role as including a reduction in economic inequality among the populace, rather than being a neutral competition enforcer guided solely by internationally recognised legal antitrust & economic principles. Both he and Commissioner Bonakele drew parallels between their anti-cartel enforcement and a purported reduction in the SA poverty rate of a whopping four tenths of a percent.
Tax Man Patel Strikes Again: Merger Conditions Going Beyond Antitrust
By Michael-James Currie
On 4 May 2016, it was announced that the merging parties to the SABMiller/Coca-Cola merger have agreed to establish a R850 million development fund in order to address public interest concerns raised by the Minister of Economic Development, Minister Patel.
The latest deal struck with Patel follows the R1 billion commitment from the merging parties in the SABMiller/AB-Inbev merger less than a month ago.
Collectively, these two commitments, which equate to R1.85 billion (or approximately U.S. $132 million), exceed the total administrative penalties which were paid by over 13 firms in the “construction cartel” (in 2013, the total penalties amounted to approximately R1.4 billion) which is regarded as the most significant and highly publicised cartel to be investigated and prosecuted by the Competition Commission to date.
A South African competition practitioner with knowledge of the recent cases observed that “[c]onsidering that there have been, in our view, no substantial arguments raised that either of the two mergers pose any substantial anti-competitive concerns, it appears absurd that to date, not a single administrative penalty imposed on a firm for hardcore cartel conduct matches the quantum which the respective merging parties have agreed to pay to get their deals done.” It further appears evident that the conditions imposed, although broadly described by the Minister as being necessary to address public interest concerns, are in fact at all merger specific.
In a clear move to placate Minister Patel and preclude further intervention by the Minister which may have the effect of delaying the merger, the merging parties in both mergers respectively, have agreed to these conditions. The timing of the two commitments are, however, illuminating.
The commitment made by the merging parties to the SAB/Coca-Cola merger, which was filed at the Competition Commission in March 2015, comes after the Competition Commission itself recommended that the merger be approved subject to an agreed R150 million development fund to help train and support historically disadvantaged farmers and suppliers. Despite the agreement reached with the Competition Commission and a confirmed hearing in May 2016 (effectively 14 months after the proposed transaction was filed) the merging parties have recognised the risk of further delays should Minster Patel intervene during the hearing proceedings.
In contrast, the in the SAB/AB In-Bev deal, the top executives met with Minster Patel soon after the deal was notified (albeit behind closed door discussions outside of the SACC’s merger-control process) in an attempt to pre-empt Minster Patel’s intervention. It is expected that the Competition Commission would, today, conclude its investigation and make its recommendations to the Competition Tribunal some four months after the this deal was filed at the competition authorities.
Minister Patel has expressed his satisfaction with the two ‘agreements’ as it is in line with his express commitment to target multinational deals, in particular, in order to promote government’s industrial policies and socio-economic objectives.
In the world of commercial negotiations and deal-making, the parties are, however, hardly in an equally bargaining position when before the competition authorities – a bargaining chip in Minister Patel’s favour which is no doubt aware of.
Whether the strategies adopted by the merging parties in respect of both the SABMiller/Ab-Inbev or the SAB/Coca-Cola merger will pave the way for the expeditious conclusion of the review process remains to be seen (although we would tend to think it certainly will in Patel’s absence from the hearings). The agreements will, however, certainly influence the Landscape of merger control in South Africa.
The precedent set by these two proposed mergers will no doubt result in greater uncertainty in South Africa’s merger control process as the message seems clear. If merging parties want to get a multinational deal concluded in South Africa and you are in Minister Patel’s sights, pay-up – irrespective of the merger specific effects of the deal.
As Andreas Stargard, a U.S.-based Pr1merio antitrust practitioner with a focus on Africa notes: “It will be interesting to see whether the Competition Tribunal, which is tasked with ultimately approving or prohibiting a large merger, will consider whether the interventionist conditions imposed by the current ministry and agreed to by the merging parties are in fact merger-specific.” Although the Tribunal is often reluctant to get involved in conditions which have been agreed to by the respective parties, the Tribunal should be cognisant of the fact that orders of the Tribunal are precedent setting and that imposing conditions to a merger which go beyond what is necessary in terms of the Competition Act as far as merger specificity is concerned, may be undesirable.
Both parties to both recent mergers have agreed to further public interest-related conditions pertaining to employment. In the SAB/Coca-Cola deal, the parties have further agreed to “maintaining employment at current levels for three years and not reduce jobs by natural attrition”, however, may retrench up to 250 “non-unionised” head office employees. Despite the intervention by Minister Patel (who formerly headed the Southern African Clothing and Textile Workers Union) and the Food and Allied Workers Union, it would appear completely outside the realm of competition policy if the Competition Tribunal imposes this condition, as effectively the competition authorities would be providing greater protection to trade union members as opposed to non-trade union members. A clearer indication of a complete lack of merger specificity may be hard to come by.
Price-fixers face up to 10 years prison time, starting May 1st
Prison time for executives is now firmly on the not-so-distant horizon in South Africa: As reported in some media outlets, the criminalisation of certain hard-core (and possibly lesser) antitrust offences is finally being implemented in the Republic — notably after more than 8 years of the relevant legislation technically being on the books.
We are referring to the “phased” implementation of the 2009 Competition Amendment Act. The legislation technically criminalised hard-core antitrust offences such as bid-rigging or price-fixing cartels. However, President Zuma has, until now, not yet implemented or effectively signed the criminal provision of the Act (section 73A) into law.
According to news reports, Mr. Patel announced today (Thursday), that the criminalisation of the price-fixing cartel offence would henceforth be enforced. Section 73A will be gazetted tomorrow, 22 April 2016, and hold the force of law from 1 May 2016. BDLive also reports that even the lesser “abuse of dominance” (or more commonly “monopolisation”) offence would be subject to the criminal penalties, but AAT is awaiting independent confirmation on this subject. As Andreas Stargard, a U.S.-based Pr1merioantitrust practitioner with a focus on Africa and experience counseling clients in criminal competition matters, explains:
“If Mr. Patel indeed made this statement, and I doubt this, it would signal a departure from the rest of the world’s antitrust regimes: It is highly uncommon to have the monopolisation offence constitute a criminal act — indeed I am aware of no jurisdiction where this is the case.
In the United States, the only conduct constituting a Sherman Act offence pursued by the DOJ as a potential felony involve so-called ‘hard-core’ violations. This would include horizontal price-fixing among competitors; territorial allocations; output allocations; and bid-rigging. The same holds true in the UK. That said, monopolisation or abuse of dominance is simply not among the criminalised antitrust violations elsewhere, and I’d be surprised if South Africa took this unusual path.“
We have since been able to confirm that the BDLive report incorrectly refers to abuse of dominance as being criminalised. AAT has obtained a copy of Mr Patel’s speech which provides clearly only for cartel conduct to be subjected to imprisonment:
“We are confident that because our work on cartels over the past five years has given clarity in the market on what collusion entails and what kind of acts falls within prohibited practices, we can now step up our efforts to the next level in our endeavor to combat corruption, cartels and anti-competitive conduct that raise prices and keep businesses and new entrants out of local markets.
Accordingly, government will tomorrow gazette a Presidential Proclamation that brings into effect certain sections of the Competition Amendment Act, with effect from 1 May 2016, which make it a criminal offence for directors or managers of a firm to collude with their competitors to fix prices, divide markets among themselves or collude in tenders or to acquiesce in collusion and they expose themselves to time in jail if convicted.”
The Patel announcements come ahead of his upcoming budget vote speech, and as he has shown in recent months, Mr. Patel is a proud advocate for tougher competition enforcement in the country. “We want to make sure that it just does not make sense to collude,” he is reported as saying today. This follows the Minister’s speech during the Parliament debate in February, where he announced that, “we will now introduce measures shortly to make it a criminal offence in any industry to collude and fix-prices. It will send a message to everyone that we mean business on stamping out corruption and collusion. We must build competitive strengths through innovation, not through sitting in rooms somewhere fixing tenders, prices and contracts.”
White-collar crime: it pays, but is getting riskier
We live in the era of the PanamaPapers, where the notion of white-collar business people going to jail is not an entirely unlikely outcome for some. Antitrust offences, however, have historically not been enforced worldwide as stringently as public corruption or tax-evasion matters, for instance. Key jurisdictions with criminalisation of competition offences remain few, notably the U.S. and the UK.
In South Africa, since at least 2014, both Competition Commissioner Tembinkosi Bonakele and Minister Patel have been engaging in discussions on how and when to implement the Act “to ensure that the necessary institutional capacity is available to apply the [criminal] amendments.” While some provisions (relating to the agency’s market-inquiry powers) went into effect in 2013, the criminalisation provisions remain unimplemented to date — but this is about to change.
During these negotiations, as reported on AAT, the minister and SACC admitted in a remarkable self-assessment that the Commission then lacked “the institutional capacity needed to comply with the higher burden of proof in criminal cases.” One notable aspect of potential discord lies in not only in the different standard of proof in civil vs. criminal matters (“more probable than not” vs. “beyond a reasonable doubt”), but perhaps more importantly can be found on the procedural side, preventing rapid implementation of the law: There has been historic friction between various elements of the RSA’s police forces and (special) prosecutorial services, and the power to prosecute crimes notably remains within the hands of the National Prosecuting Authority, supported in its investigations by the South African Police Service.
History & Legislative Background – and a bit of Advice from the U.S.
Starting in the spring and summer of 2008, the rumoured legislative clamp-down on corrupt & anti-competitive business practices by the government made the RSA business papers’ headlines.
During a presentation Mr. Stargard gave at a Johannesburg conference in September that year (“Criminalising Competition Law: A New Era of ‘Antitrust with Teeth’ in South Africa? Lessons Learned from the U.S. Perspective“), he quoted a few highlights among them, such as “Competition Bill to Pave Way for Criminal Liability”, “Tough on directors”, “Criminalisation of directors by far most controversial”, “Bosses Must Pay Fines Themselves”, “Likely to give rise to constitutional challenges”, and “Disqualification from directorships … very career limiting”.
Stargard, whose practice includes criminal and civil antitrust work, having represented South African Airways in the global “Air Cargo Cartel” investigations, also notes that international best-practice recommendations all highlight the positive effect of criminal antitrust penalties. For example, the OECD’s Hard-Core Cartel Report recommended that governments consider the introduction and imposition of criminal antitrust sanctions against individuals to enhance deterrence and incentives to cooperate through leniency programmes. Then-DOJ antitrust chief Tom Barnett said in 2008, the year South Africa introduced its legislation: “Jail time creates the most effective, necessary deterrent. … [N]othing in our enforcement arsenal has as great a deterrent as the threat of substantial jail time in a United States prison, either as a result of a criminal trial or a guilty plea.”
Mr. Stargard points out the following recommendations to serve as guide-posts for the Commission going forward in its “new era” of criminal enforcement:
Cornerstones of a successful criminal antitrust regime
Crystal-clear demarcation of criminal vs. civil conduct
Highly effective leniency policy also applies to individuals
Standard of proof must be met beyond a reasonable doubt
No blanket liability for negligent directors – only actors liable
Plea bargaining to be used as an effective tool to reduce sentence
Clear pronouncements by enforcement agency to help counsel predict outcomes
What lies ahead?
After 1 May, the penalties for violating Section 73A of the Competition Amendment Act will range from a period of up to 10 years in prison and/or a fine of up to R500 000.00. It appears that the introduction of criminal provisions will not have a retrospective effect, but will only apply prospectively from 1 May 2016 onward.
The introduction of criminal sanctions for cartel conduct raise several constitutional concerns. It is likely that, in the event of the imposition of criminal sanctions, the constitutional validity of the relevant Competition Amendment Act provisions will be challenged. In particular, section 73A(5) of the Amendment Act, introduces a reverse onus on the accused, in that the onus for rebutting the Competition Tribunal of Competition Appeal Court’s conclusion rests with the accused in criminal proceedings. The reverse onus’ constitutional validity is questionable given the constitutional right to a fair trial and the right to be presumed innocent.
John Oxenham, also with Pr1merio, notes that the “criminalisation of cartel conduct is a development which needs to be carefully considered and well planned before its official introduction due to the imminent effects it will have on current South African competition law.” The successful prosecution of cartel conduct rests heavily on the efficiency of corporate leniency policies. The introduction of criminal sanctions and in turn the National Prosecuting Authority will undoubtedly have an effect on the current corporate leniency policies. It is important to consider granting the staff of a company applying for corporate leniency in relation to cartel activity ‘full immunity’ from criminal prosecution in order to encourage companies to come forward and not debilitate the very purpose of corporate leniency policies. The careful integration of criminal sanctions is therefore vital in ensuring that the very purpose of its introduction, namely to deter corruption and anti-competitive conduct, is achieved.
Update [22 April 2016]: As anticipated, the South African government gazetted [published] the official document starting the era of criminal antitrust enforcement under section 73A as of today, signed 18 April 2016: