Botswana Competition Authority: Exception Application Backfires for Choppies-Payless Buying Group

The Competition Authority of Botswana (CA) rejected an exemption application brought by two FMCG players. The applicants, Choppies Distribution Centre and Payless Supermarkets, sought to justify their application by demonstrating that by increasing their buyer power the applicants would be able to ensure lower prices and better quality products for consumers and that these pro-competitive outcomes outweigh any anti-competitive effects.

After evaluating the exemption application, the CA found that the agreement between Choppies and Payless would result in a substantial lessening of competition. In particular, the CA held that:

  • There is no competition between Choppies and Payless, the duo had monthly promotions wherein they had the same goods on promotion at identical or similar prices and the pamphlets were an exact replica of each other.  
  • The two stores had alleged that Choppies would not benefit from the arrangement. It however emerged that Choppies was benefiting, particularly given, the quantity of Choppies in house brands found in Payless stores. Payless did not have any in house brands, but instead sold a variety of Choppies goods in large volumes.
  • Further, the Authority finds that the granting of an exemption to the applicants would be in effect granting the Choppies and Payless the leeway to continue with their price fixing and distortion of competition.

The CA was also not convinced that there were any other public interest benefits which would outweigh the anti-competitive effects referred to above.

This exemption application followed a similar application in 2014 which was also rejected.

Primerio Director, John Oxenham, says that this application demonstrates the importance of ensuring that objective and credible economic evidence accompanies an exemption application in order to prove the likely economic benefits to the public.

When asked to comment, Michael-James Currie, a competition lawyer practising across sub-Saharan Africa, says that buyer power in the context of FMCG retailers is a particularly topical issue not only in Botswana but also in South Africa where buyer power has specifically been included in the Competition Amendment Bill (which is soon to be brought into effect) as well as Kenya (who have also specifically included abuse of buyer power as a standalone provision). The motivation behind these legislative amendments, says Currie, follow largely as a result of concerns raised by the respective competition agencies of South Africa and Kenya regarding the buyer power which large retailers exert on small suppliers.

It is not yet clear whether Choppies-Payless proceed to appeal the CA’s decision or whether they will seek to pursue a fresh exemption application bolstered with more compelling economic evidence.  To the extent that the applicants abide by the CA’s decision, they will be required to dissolve their “buying group agreement” within three months.

 

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SA Competition Act officially amended – serious consequences for businesses

South Africa has amended its antitrust laws, first introduced to the country in 1998 via its Competition Act.  Parliament ratified the amendments (which still have to be rubber-stamped by the National Council of Provinces, a mere formality) yesterday over the serious objections of the opposition parties.  The new law will give significant interventionist powers to the Minister for Economic Development, Ebrahim Patel, as well as introduce lower (or even reversed) burdens of proof for the Competition Commission (SACC) to make its case, after a long-running string of court losses and appellate defeats has seen the SACC’s track record weakened, observers say.

As reported on AAT Monday, a panel of Africa-focussed competition specialists had just recently convened in Johannesburg, warning the South African business community about the high probability of the Bill’s passage, as well as addressing the adverse effects the Bill will have on doing business in South Africa as a medium to large size market player (measured in market share, not merely revenue) or simply as a foreign-owned corporate.

Minister Patel speaks

Minister Patel

Interviewed yesterday in Cape Town, where the Amendment Act was ratified by South Africa’s Parliament, Primerio competition practitioner Andreas Stargard commented: “As we foreshadowed at our conference less than a week ago, the likelihood of the Bill passing was high.  Political, populist pressure was simply too strong for this amendment — which had been introduced as a so-called ‘prioritised bill’ that could be fast-tracked — not to pass.  We view the likely effects of it as a serious departure from commonly accepted best practices in the international world of antitrust law, as we outlined to our clients at the Johannesburg conference.  I will be curious to hear what Commissioner Bonakele’s comments on these critiques will be at Friday’s conference at New York University“, referring to an event sponsored by NYU and Concurrences, at which the SACC Commissioner is expected to deliver a panel speech later this week.

Commenting on the purported social transformational goals, South African competition partner John Oxenham adds: “There is a relentless push from government (not only Mr. Patel) to use the Competition Act as a tool to speed up its broader social and transformation goals.  The underlying reasons for this Amendment are rather straightforwardly conceded by the current, and arguably presently fluctuating, administration: the Bill was ostensibly designed not to enhance competitiveness in the traditional antitrust sense, but rather to address so-called market concentration and perceived unequal ownership patterns in the SA economy.”

Breaking: South African Competition Amendment Bill passed by Parliament

AAT has closely monitored the progress of the Competition Amendment Bill and provided commentary to the Bill from leading local and international competition practitioners.

This is to update our readers that the Amendment Bill was passed in the National Assembly on 23 October 2018. The Bill still requires the National Council of Provinces to approve the Bill, following that the President’s consent – both of these procedural steps are likely to be mere formalities in light of the National Assembly’s decision to approve the Bill.

AAT expects that the Bill will be brought into effect imminently and likely without any material grace period for parties to assure compliance with its onerous provisions.

The Bill passed by the National Assembly has been amend mended from the draft Bill which was placed before Parliament’s Portfolio Committee.  The key contentious provisions of the Bill, however, remain largely unchanged.

To access a copy of the Bill passed by Parliament, click here.

Panel highlights SA Competition Amendment Bill’s pitfalls

As AAT has reported on extensively, the South African Competition Amendment Bill, currently pending in Parliament, is likely to be adopted in short order in its current draft form.

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 editor@africanantitrust.com and we will put you in touch with the relevant individuals]

 

South Africa Competition Tribunal: Merging Parties Penalised for Failure to Comply with Public Interest Conditions

By Michael-James Currie

On 29 June 2018, the South African Competition Tribunal (Tribunal) penalised the RTO Group R75 000 for failing to comply with the Tribunal’s conditional merger approval in respect of two companies now within the RTI stable, Warehouseit and Courierit. The Tribunal approved the large merger in August 2015.

In terms of the Tribunal’s merger approval, a moratorium on merger specific retrenchments for a two year period was imposed – now a frequently imposed public interest related condition by the competition agencies in South Africa.

RTI, however, was penalised not for retrenching any employees during this window but for failure to adhere to the monitoring obligations as set out in the Tribunal’s conditional approval certificate.

In this regard, the merging parties were obliged to notify their employees (and Courierit’s subcontractors) of the conditions to the merger approval within five days of the merger approval date. The merging parties were also obliged to provide the Competition Commission with an affidavit confirming that the obligations in terms of the conditions had been complied with.

By way of a consent order, RTI admitted that it failed to comply with its monitoring obligations and agreed to pay an administrative penalty for breaching the Tribunal’s conditional merger approval.

Although there have been a limited number of cases in respect of which an administrative penalty has been imposed for a breach of the merger conditions, this case demonstrates the importance of fully complying with the terms set out by way of a conditional merger approval.

Furthermore, although notifying the employees of the relevant conditions may not have been a particularly onus obligation, merging parties should take particular cognisance of monitoring and reporting obligations when negotiating conditions with the Competition Commission. Merging parties understandably place greater emphasis on the substantive aspects of the conditions and may underestimate the reporting obligations related thereto – particularly if conditions are being negotiated at the eleventh hour (which is not uncommon).

While there are mechanism’s available to merging parties to remedy any patently unworkable aspects contained in merger approval conditions, it is advisable to ensure that the conditions are practical and capable of being adhered to in full prior to being finalised – assuming the merging parties have that luxury.

[Michael-James Currie is a South African based competition lawyer and practices across Sub-Saharan Africa]

Business community embraces COMESA competition law: First-ever #CCCworkshop at full capacity

The first-ever COMESA-sponsored competition law workshop focussed solely on the business community, currently underway in Nairobi, Kenya, stretches the capacity of the Hilton conference room where it is being held.

The event’s tag line is “Benefits to Business.” Especially now, with the African continent sporting over 400 companies with over $500m in annual revenues, the topic of antitrust regulation in Africa is more pertinent than ever, according to the COMESA Competition Commission (CCC).

The head of the Zambian competition regulator (CCPC), Dr. Chilufya Sampa, introduced the first panel and guest of honour. He identified the threats of anticompetitive last behaviour as grounds for he need to understand and support the work of he CCC and its sister agencies in the member states.

With COMESA trade liberalisation, the markets at issue are much larger than kenya or other national markets. The effects of anticompetitive conduct are thus often magnified accordingly.

The one-stop shop nature of the CCC’s merger notification system simplifies and renders more cost-effective the transactional work of companies doing business in COMESA.

The Keynote speaker, Mr. Mohammed Nyaoga Muigai, highlighted the exciting future of the more and more integrated African markets, offering new challenges and opportunities. He challenged the audience to imagine a single market of over 750 million consumers. Companies will have to think creatively and “outside the box” in these enlarged common markets.

His perspective is twofold: for one, as a businessman and lawyer, but also as a regulator and board chairman and member of the Kenyan Central Bank. Effective competition policy (and access to the legal system) allows to prepare the ground for the successful carrying out of business in the common market. Yet, businesses must know what the regulatory regime actually is. Therefore, the duty of lawyers is to educate their clients about the strictures and requirements of all applicable competition law, across all COMESA member states.

After a group photo, the event continued with an informative presentation by Mr. Willard Mwemba on key facts that “companies should know” on merger control in the (soon enlarged to 21 member states, with the imminent addition of Tunisia and Somalia) COMESA region, starting with its historical roots in COMESA Treaty Article 55 and continuing through the current era since 2013 of the CCC’s regulatory oversight.

Willard Mwemba, Head of M&A at the CCC

He provided relevant merger statistics, jointly with Director of Trade affairs, Dr. Francis Mangeni, which were of great interest to the audience, followed by a discussion of substantive merger review analysis as it is undertaken by the Commission. The benefits of the “one-stop-shop” characteristic of CCC notification versus multiple individual filings were extolled and individual past M&A cases discussed.

AAT will live-update the blog as the event progresses.

Dr. Sampa, CCPC executive

Dr. Sampa, as head of the Zambian CCPC and a former CCC Board member, emphasized the importance for companies to have functioning and well-implemented antitrust compliance programmes in place.

A spirited discussion was had relating to the 30% market share threshold the Commission utilises to evaluate triggers for launching antitrust conduct investigations. Primerio’s Andreas Stargard argued for COMESA’s consideration of an increase in this trigger threshold to 40%, proposing that:

“Especially in an already concentrated market (where players possess majority shares anyway), a low initial share threshold is of little to no additional enforcement value. On the contrary, a low threshold may hamper vigorous competition by smaller to midsize competitors or newer entrants, who wish to grow their (previously innocuous) smaller share of the market but are simultaneously held back in their growth efforts by trying not to cross the 30% barrier so as not to attract the attention of the Commission.”

There was also an issue raised regarding private equity and non-profit / “impact investors” and the like having to bear the burden of notifications and ancillary fees in cases that are otherwise unobjectionable almost by definition (since the investors are not present on the market of the acquired entities in which they invest). Dr. Mangeni indicated that the CCC will investigate and consider whether a proposed change in the applicable Rules to account for this problem may be advisable in the future.

Mary Gurure, head of legal (CCC)

The CCC’s chief legal advisor, Ms. Mary Gurure, presented on conflict of laws issues within the COMESA regime, harmonisation of laws, and CCC engagements with individual member states on these issues.

Crucially, she also mentioned a novel initiative to replicate a COMESA-focused competition enforcer network, akin to the ECN and ICN groupings of international antitrust agencies.

Business panel #CCCworkshop 2018

The conference concluded with a business lawyer panel, in which outside counsel and in-house business representatives voiced their perspectives, largely focusing on the issue of merger notifications. These topics included the (1) burdens of having to submit certified copies of documents, (2) high filing fees (particularly in light of relatively low-value deals being made in the region), (3) comparatively low notification thresholds (e.g., the $10m 2-party turnover limit), (4) remaining, if minimal, confusion over multiple filing obligations, (5) questions surrounding the true nature of the “public interest” criterion in the CCC’s merger evaluation, which could benefit from further clarification via a Guideline or the like, and (6) the importance of predictability and consistency in rulings.

Panellists also commented on the positive, countervailing benefits of the one-stop-shop nature of the CCC, as well as highlighting the friendly nature of the COMESA staff, which permits consensus-building and diplomatic resolutions of potential conflicts.

Mr. Mwemba concluded the event by responding to each of the panel members’ points, noting that forum-shopping based on the costs of filing fees reflected a misguided approach, that the CCC may consider increasing filing thresholds, and that the CCC’s average time to reach merger decisions has been 72 (calendar) days.

Restriction on parallel imports gets red-lighted by CAK

Enforcement Update: Kenya Exemption Applications

The Competition Authority of Kenya (“CAK”) recently issued a press release on its two decisions to reject exemptions applications under sections 25 and 26 of the Kenyan Competition Act 12 of 2010. The CAK rejected applications by WOW beverages (a leading distributor in the alcoholic beverages industry) and the Institute of Certified Public Secretaries (a professional body, hereafter “ICPS”).

WOW beverages filed an exemption application to the CAK, which would have allowed it to secure contracts with seven international suppliers to import and distribute exclusively 214 premium wine and spirit brands in Kenya. WOW beverages argued that the proposed exclusive contracts were necessary to protect its investment and would protect consumers from defective products, and guarantee accountability in the event that such products enter the Kenyan market. The CAK rejected this argument stating: “The Authority [CAK] is of the opinion that parallel imports, through legal channels, are likely to bring more benefits to Kenyan consumers, including the enhancement of intra-brand competition which often leads to lower prices.

The CAK’s decision on the application brought by ICPS (which was one of the first professional bodies to attempt to obtain an exemption to set fee guidelines) made it clear that there was no evidence to suggest that fixing prices for auditing services will improve the profession or prevent its decline and, instead, it is likely to eliminate the incentive to offer quality services. Interestingly, the CAK went a step further to state that “price fixing by professional associations extinguish[es] competition with no plausible public benefits” and went on to warn other professions that “the decision to reject the institute’s exemption application sends a strong message to professional bodies that fee guidelines decrease competition, reduce innovation and efficiencies, and limit customer choices”.  This likely follows from the recent increase in exemption applications brought by other professional bodies in Kenya such as the Institute of Certified Public Accountants of Kenya and the Law Society of Kenya (which has a remuneration order). The CAK’s decisions on these applications are likely to be published in short order.

With increased awareness of competition law in Kenya, more entities are applying to the CAK for exemptions primarily to ensure that they are not found to be engaging in anticompetitive conduct, where the penalty can be up to 10% of the turnover of the entity.

According to practicing Kenyan antitrust lawyer, Ruth Mosoti, the CAK has powers to allow an entity to engage in what would ordinarily be considered anticompetitive conduct.  The Act provides a framework on how such applications are to be determined “but, most importantly, the benefits must outweigh the competition concerns and meet the public-interest requirement.  The competition authority also appears to put great emphasis on espousing international best practices.  It is therefore important when one is making such an application to ensure that the same is backed by international best practices.”

Andreas Stargard, Ms. Mosoti’s colleague at Primerio Ltd., echoes her sentiments.  He notes that the CAK follows in the well-tread footsteps of other international competition enforcers, which have dealt with antitrust exemption applications for decades: “Similar to the European Commission in its past rulings on meritless Article 101(3) exemption requests, the CAK has diligently applied common-sense competition principles in these two recent cases.”  Stargard advises that other companies or trade groups wishing to seek reprieve from the Kenyan Act should consider certain key factors first before approaching the CAK:

First, ask yourself whether the proposed conduct for which you seek an exemption contributes to improving something other than your own bottom line (such as innovation that benefits others, or efficiency or a reduction in emissions, etc.), and consider whether consumers at large receive share of the resulting benefits.

In addition, just as with traditional joint-venture analysis, be prepared to articulate how the proposed agreement or restriction is absolutely indispensable to obtaining these benefits and accomplishing the stated economic goal.

Finally, seek competent legal advice from experts, who will be able to provide a professional evaluation whether or not the agreement you seek to exempt is likely to qualify under the criteria of sections 25 and 26 of the Act — or whether the CAK will rule against it, finding that an exclusivity clause or or restriction you seek will more likely than not eliminate competition.

For more on recent exemption application see our related articles, exclusively at AAT: Seeking Exemptions From Resale Price Maintenance Rules and Airlines Seek Antitrust Exemption: Kq-Cak Application Pending

 

 

 

Angola does Antitrust: Latest addition to world’s competition-law regimes

After its 2017 administration change, the Republic of Angola is eager to join other African nations with nascent competition-law enforcement regimes: Having been approved by a unanimous majority of 183 votes in parliament, the new Angolan competition act is expected to be enforced by the also newly-established “Competition Regulatory Authority” (“ARC”) in short order, before year’s end, according to experts.

According to reports, the Angolan law (comprising 56 articles across 8 chapters) prominently includes principles such as the public-interest criterion and “rules of sound competition in morality and ethics.”

Says Andreas Stargard, an antitrust/competition and white-collar attorney with Primerio Ltd.: “These are concepts often deemed non-traditional in the antitrust laws in the Western hemisphere.  Yet, public-interest considerations are increasingly common in African competition-law legislation and indeed often form the basis for otherwise difficult to justify pragmatic enforcement decisions we now encounter more frequently across the continent, both in merger and non-merger cases.”

Angola is a member of the African Union and the SADC (Southern African Development Community), whose most prominent member, the Republic of South Africa, has a comparatively long history of including public-interest considerations in its two decades of antitrust enforcement.  As to the general concept of Angola finally adopting a competition-law regime, it appears that a key driver was the anticipated diversification of the domestic economy:

“A functioning Angolan competition regime (meaning not only the statute but also including an effective enforcement agency) is long overdue, as recognised by the recently elected Angolan president, João Lourenço,” says attorney Stargard. “By supporting enactment of the Competition Bill, Mr. Lourenço has made good on his campaign promise from 2017 to incentivise foreign direct investment, increase domestic business growth, and — importantly for the population — encourage price competition in local consumer goods markets, as the cost of living in Angola is among the highest on the African continent”.

One of the drivers of the new government’s push for FDI and organic GDP growth is the desire to de-link the Angolan economic dependence from oil prices and production, and possibly also from China (which remains the country’s largest trading partner by far). Angolan fossil fuel and diamond exports — together by far the largest sectors of the economy, and as commodity industries, quite naturally subject to collusion risk and/or monopolistic practices, according to Mr. Stargard — have yielded at best inconsistent benefits to the country’s population at-large, and President Lourenço’s pro-competition intitiative appears to support the diversification of his country’s lopsided economy historically focused on mining and resource extraction.

 

 

 

 

 

Competition Authority approves KFC Franchise M&A with public-interest conditions

On 7 February 2018 the Competition Authority of Botswana (“The Competition Authority”) approved, with conditions, the acquisition by Bradleymore’s Holdings (Pty) Ltd (“Bradleymore’s”), which is incorporated in accordance with the laws of the Republic of Botswana (a joint venture between Vivo Energy Africa Holdings Limited and Baobab Khulisani South Africa (Pty) Ltd) of KFC franchises in Botswana, namely VPB Propco (Pty) Ltd (in liquidation), QSR Food Company (Pty) Ltd (in liquidation), Boitumelo Dijo (Pty) Ltd (in liquidation) and Greenax (Pty) Ltd (in liquidation).

The Competition Authority determined that the Proposed Transaction is not likely to result in the prevention or substantial lessening of competition, or endanger the continuity of the services offered in the market for quick-service or fast food restaurants.

Section 60 of the Competition Act No 17 of 2009 (“the Competition Act”) allows the Competition Authorities to approve a merger “subject to such conditions as it considers appropriate” and “contain such directions as the Authority considers necessary, reasonable and practicable to remedy, mitigate or prevent any adverse effects of the merger”.

Furthermore, section 61 of the Competition Act provides for either of the parties to a merger to offer an undertaking to the Competition Authority to address any concerns that may arise or be expected to arise during the Competition Authorities consideration of the notified merger and the Competition Authority may make determinations in relation to the merger on the basis of such an undertaking.

Pursuant to the provisions of section 60 and 61 of the Competition Act; the Competition Authority approved the Proposed Transaction with the following conditions:

  1. Bradleymore’s shall source a significant portion of their input requirements locally by continuing to source from existing suppliers that were engaged by VPB, provided they are YUM accredited; as well as consider sourcing from any other YUM accredited suppliers based in Botswana who are currently not supplying KFC;
  2. Bradleymore’s shall ensure that local suppliers are assisted in penetrating or meeting YUM’s standards of accreditation with the aim of sourcing from these suppliers; and
  3. The Parties shall not retrench any employees of the target entities as a result of the acquisition for a period of three (3) years from the implementation date. For the sake of clarity, retrenchments do not include: voluntary separation; voluntary early retirement; unreasonable refusal to be deployed in accordance with the provisions of the labour laws of Botswana; resignations or retirements in the ordinary course of business; terminations in the ordinary course of business; dismissals as a result of misconduct of poor performance.

In order for the Competition Authority to properly monitor compliance with the above conditions, the Competition Authority shall require Bradleymore’s to adhere to the following:

  1. Bradleymore’s shall annually (for a period of three years from the implementation date) submit to the Competition Authority, a detailed report     indicating:-
  2. Any changes to its employment records in the country and the reasons thereof;
  3. A list of its existing and new locally based suppliers (including the type of inputs they supply). This information can be captured in the supply agreements KFC has with such suppliers; and
  4. A copy of the strategy to be employed in building capacity of local suppliers in ensuring they meet YUM accreditation standards. That copy should be availed to the Authority within a period of twelve (12) months from the implementation date. The parties need to demonstrate to the Authority efforts made in identifying potential suppliers in line with their expansion strategy.

Stephany Torres, a competition lawyer, believes such a decision is indicative of the Competition Authorities’ tendency to give public interest considerations a prominent role in merger review.

In terms of section 59(1) of the Competition Act, “[i]n assessing a  proposed merger, the Authority shall first determine whether the merger (a) would be likely to prevent or substantially lessen competition or to restrict trade or the provision of any service or to endanger the continuity of supplies or services; or (b) would be likely to result in any enterprise, including an enterprise which is not involved as a party in the proposed merger, acquiring a dominant position in a market”.

In addition to considering the effect of a merger on competition, in terms of section 59(2) of the Competition Act, the Competition Authority may consider any factor which it considers bears upon the broader public interest, including the extent to which “(a) the proposed merger would be likely to result in a benefit to the public which would outweigh any detriment attributable to a substantial lessening of competition or to the acquisition or strengthening of a dominant position in a market; (b) the merger may improve, or prevent a decline in the production or distribution of goods or the provision of services; (c) the merger may promote technical or economic progress, having regard to Botswana’s development needs; (d) the proposed merger would be likely to affect a particular industrial sector or region; (e) the proposed merger would maintain or promote exports or employment; (f) the merger may advance citizen empowerment initiatives or enhance the competitiveness of citizen-owned small and medium sized enterprises; or (g) the merger may affect the ability of national industries to compete in international markets”.

Torres believes the Competition Authorities’ willingness to push public-interest considerations even in instances such as the proposed transaction, where no competition issues arise, is indicative of them trying to address unemployment issues in Botswana through their merger review.  This willingness to let public interest take centre stage is often seen in countries with new competition law regimes.  She expressed concern that public interest considerations may possibly be the deciding factor when making decisions regarding mergers as these are particularly difficult to quantify or objectively assess.

Merger Control: Public Interest & SINOPEC/Chevron

When the Stick is Greater than the Carrot

While China Petroleum & Chemical Corporation (Sinopec), and global commodities trader and miner Glencore are the front runners in a bid to buy Chevron’s South African Business (Chevron SA), it appears that Sinopec has managed to edge ahead after the Chinese firm has agreed to a number of public interest conditions in an effort to placate the South African Minister of Economic Development, Ebrahim Patel (Patel) and avoid ministerial intervention before the Competition Tribunal’s (the agency responsible for approving the merger) hearing.

PublicInterestpic.jpgThe South African Competition Commission (SACC), responsible for investigating and making recommendations to the Tribunal, recently published its recommendation in relation to the proposed Sinopec-Chevron deal. Unsurprisingly, consistent with large mergers (particularly by foreign acquiring firms) – the SACC’s recommendations contain a number of non-merger specific public interest conditions. A feature of South African merger control which has become increasingly prevalent in recent years (refer to the AB-InBev/SAB or the SAB/Coca-Cola mergers) – largely as a result of Minister Patel’s ‘direct’ involvement in the merger control process.

It is not yet cast in stone that Sinopec will in fact be the acquiring entity as the minority shareholders in Chevron SA enjoy a right to first refusal. Regardless of the entity who is ultimately successful in acquiring Chevron SA (Chevron has confirmed that the proposed deal with Glencore is also currently before the SACC), the South African government has set its price for investing in South Africa, as confirmed by Minister Patel’s following statement:

Government will not choose to whom Chevron sells control of Chevron South Africa, but we will ensure that proper public interest conditions, in line with the Competition Act, should apply to whoever is the successful bidder,”

Apart from the significant Ministerial intervention and the direct influence this has on the SACC’s independent investigation and review of a merger, a particularly contentious issue in relation to the imposition of public interest conditions relates to the Minister’s comment that the public interest conditions are “in line with the Competition Act”.

Although conditions regarding employment falls within the scope of section 12A(3) of the South African Competition Act, the remainder of the recommendations made by the SACC in casu goes beyond what was envisaged by the legislature in Section 12A(3) of the Competition Act. In this regard, the conditions recommended by the SACC include inter alia the following:

  • Sinopec must set up its head office in South Africa in order for it to co-ordinate and oversee its operations in South Africa and to use South Africa as the platform to oversee its operations throughout Africa;
  • Sinopec undertakes not to retrench any of its employees, in perpetuity;
  • Sinopec agrees to invest further in Chevron’s Cape Town refinery;
  • Sinopec undertakes to make a significant investment over and above the current investment plans of Chevron South Africa;
  • Sinopec must upgrade Chevron South Africa’s operations and expand its refinery capacity in South Africa;
  • Sinopec undertakes to maintain Chevron SA’s current baseline number of independently owned petrol stations;
  • Where independently owned petrol stations are to be established, Sinopec must ensure that Chevron SA will give preference to small businesses, especially black-owned businesses;
  • Sinopec must ensure that Chevron will favour small businesses in granting rights in respect of any new retailer owned petrol stations.
  • Sinopec must also ensure that Chevron will increase its level of supplies of (liquefied petroleum gas) to black-owned businesses, following the expiration of current contractual arrangements; and
  • Sinopec must promote the export and sale of South African manufactured products for sale in China through its service stations network in China.

More specifically, Minister Patel requires that Sinopec makes a R6bn Capex investment, commits to increasing the level of BEE ownership in Chevron SA from 25% to 29% and, an all-time favourite condition, establish a development fund worth R200m.

As John Oxenham, Director of Primerio notes, the absence of merger specificity together with the imposition of public interest conditions which go far beyond the specified grounds listed in the Competition Act has been consistently criticised for resulting in uncertainty, delays and costs in the merger review process. It also sends a message to entities that South Africa is open to business… on condition (at a time when our economy could do with every bit of foreign direct investment).

Regardless of the criticism levelled against the role of public interest conditions in merger control proceedings, the prevalence of public interest conditions is set to play and even greater role in merger control (and competition enforcement more generally) should the Competition Amendment Bill be brought into effect.

John Oxenham further notes: “The Competition Amendment Bill has broadens the scope of the SACC’s powers with regards to public interest, to include the ability of small businesses to enter into, participate in and expand within the relevant market and the promotion of a greater spread of ownership.”

Practising competition law attorney, Michael-James Currie states: “The Bill has clearly sought to strengthen and codify the role of public interest conditions in merger control and expressly elevates public interest considerations to the same status as pure competition issues – the fact that the Bill specifically broadens the scope and role of public interest conditions brings into question whether the proposed conditions in the Chevron deal are in fact “in line with the (current) Competition Act”.

Competition law enforcement in South Africa is set for a significant shake-up to the extent that the Amendment Act is brought into effect – which is likely to occur in 2018. For further insight and commentary to the Amendment Bill, please see an AAT exclusive article here.

One message which business is desperately shouting across at the South African Government at the moment is “policy certainty!”  However, the SACC’s recommendation in casu and the proposed changes to the Competition Act is a move in the opposite direction as it seeks to place a great deal of discretion in the hands of a few key policy decision makers (namely the Minister of the Department of Economic Development and the SACC’s Commissioner). Discretion, exercised in a subjective manner, runs very much contrary to policy certainty – which, in light of an imminent cabinet reshuffle under new ANC President Cyril Ramaphosa’s leadership, may be of particular concern.

Although the Tribunal ultimately needs to approve the merger, the Tribunal is reluctant to intervene in proceedings which are uncontested – which Minister Patel knows all too well. Accordingly, as a crafty negotiator, Minister Patel is well aware that parties in the position of Sinopec have one of two options, agree to the public interest conditions and expedite the merger review or proceed with a contested hearing which will most likely be opposed by the Minister.

Despite calls for a more consistent, certain and transparent application of competition law in South Africa, however, there seems to be a move away from international best practice and competition law enforcement in South Africa and once the Amendment Act is brought into effect, there is a material risk that political influence will undermine the independence, impartiality and effective enforcement of competition law in South Africa to subjective, unqualified and discretion based enforcement.

[The ATT editors wish to thank Charl van Merwe for his assistance with drafting this article]