SACC’s take on its #DigitalMarkets oversight & regulation

The South African Competition Commission recently contributed the following summary of its activities regarding the ‘hot topic’ of so-called Digital Markets and antitrust law to the “Compendium” (not AAT’s, the actual government enforcers’ compendium document resulting from the multilateral G7 meeting organized by the Bundeskartellamt in Germany).


Whether and how you have sought to use enforcement or non-enforcement tools, law
enforcement or regulatory action to address such issues. You may wish to highlight any
particularly relevant cases.

Recent cases
The Competition Commission of South Africa (CCSA) uses various competition enforcement tools to resolve concerns in digital markets, including unilateral conduct enforcement, merger regulation, market inquiries and advocacy. In November 2021, the CCSA referred an abuse of dominance case against Facebook Inc. (now Meta Platforms Inc) to the Competition Tribunal (Tribunal), for adjudication. The CCSA’s investigation found that Facebook enforced unduly restrictive access terms and conditions to its WhatsApp platform, against GovChat. This was to remove GovChat’s threat to Facebook’s own social networking position and WhatsApp’s monetisation strategies.


GovChat is a start-up online platform through which the South Africa government communicates with its citizens through mass push notifications on the WhatsApp platform. The GovChat platform also allows citizens to access information or services pertaining to various government services or programmes such as social grants, COVID19 services or to respond to surveys / polls to rate government services / performance. Thus, GovChat plays a very important role in the lives of South African citizens and is an important interface between the government and citizens. The CCSA found that Facebook’s conducts likely contravenes the following abuse of dominance provisions contained in section 8(1) of the Competition Act No. 89 of 1998 (as amended) –


a. refusal to give a competitor access to an essential facility when economically feasible to do so (section 8(1)(b)).
b. engaging in exclusionary conduct whose anticompetitive effect is not outweighed by any efficiencies or technological gains (section 8(c)).
c. refusal to supply scarce goods or services to a competitor or customer when economically feasible to do so (section 8(1)(d)(ii)).
At the time of writing, the Tribunal had not yet allocated a hearing date for this matter.

Market inquiries
In May 2021, the CCSA launched its online intermediation platforms market inquiry (the “Inquiry”). The Inquiry is focused on digital platforms in the areas of e-Commerce marketplaces, online classifieds, software application stores, travel and accommodation aggregators, and food delivery services platforms. The inquiry has focused on three areas of competition and public interest, namely (a) market features that may hinder competition amongst the platforms themselves; (b) market features that may give rise to discriminatory or exploitative treatment of business users; and (c) market features that may negatively impact the ability of SMEs and/or historically disadvantaged firms to participate in the economy.


The Inquiry released its provisional report in July 2022 and aims to conclude its work by the end of 2022. Amongst others, the Inquiry has provisionally found that Google Search plays an important role in directing consumers to the different platforms, and in this way shapes platform competition. The prevalence of paid search at the top of the search results page without adequate identifiers as advertising raises platform customer acquisition costs and favours large, often global, platforms. Preferential placement of their own specialist search units also distorts competition in Google’s favour. The Inquiry provisionally recommends that paid results are prominently labelled as advertising with borders and shading to be clearer to consumers and that the top of the page is reserved for organic, or natural, search results based on relevance only, uninfluenced by payments. The Inquiry further provisionally recommends that Google allows competitors to compete for prominence in a search by having their own specialist units and with no guaranteed positions for Google specialist units. The Inquiry is also exploring whether the default position of Google Search on mobile devices should end in South Africa. In terms of competition amongst platforms, the Inquiry makes the following provisional findings and recommendations, amongst others:


a. In software application stores, there is no effective competition for the fees charged to app developers with in-app payments, resulting in high fees and app prices. The Inquiry’s provisional recommendation is that apps should be able to steer consumers to external web-based payment options, or alternatively a maximum cap is placed on application store commission fees.
b. Price parity clauses, evident in travel & accommodation, e-commerce and food delivery, hinder competition and create dependency, and the Inquiry therefore recommends their removal. Wide price parity clauses prevent businesses offering
lower prices on other platforms and narrow parity prevents businesses from offering lower prices on their own direct online channel.
c. In property classifieds and food delivery, new entrants and local delivery platforms face challenges signing up large national businesses, undermining their ability to compete. The Inquiry provisionally finds in property classifieds this is a result of the investment and support of large estate agencies in Private Property and recommends the divesture of their stake. Facilitating the interoperability of listings on the leading platforms is a further recommendation to support entrants. In food delivery, national restaurant chains often prevent franchisees listing on local delivery platforms and the Inquiry recommends this practice ceases along with any incentives provided by national delivery platforms to steer volumes their way.
d. In food delivery, the Inquiry also finds that the business model of substantial eater promotions alongside high restaurant commission fees can result in large surcharges on menu items which is not transparent to consumers and distorts competition with local delivery options. The Inquiry provisionally recommends greater transparency on either the menu surcharge or the share taken by the delivery platforms.
In terms of competition amongst businesses on the platforms and consumer choice, the Inquiry makes the following provisional findings and recommendations, amongst others:

a. Across all platforms there is a tendency to sell top ranking search positions to businesses which are not the most relevant to the consumer and constitute a form of advertising that is not transparent. This impacts on consumer choice and competition, especially for SMEs that cannot spend as much as large businesses. The Inquiry recommends that advertising is clearly displayed as such and that the top results are reserved for organic (or natural) search results.
b. The Inquiry provisionally finds that the extreme levels of fee discrimination against SMEs in online classifieds, food delivery and to a lesser extent travel & accommodation, hinders their participation and has no coherent justification. The Inquiry provisionally recommends that a maximum cap is placed on the fee differentials between large and small businesses, potentially at 10-15%. In food delivery it is recommended that more equitable treatment also occurs in terms of marketing commitments made in exchange for lower commission fees.
c. In e-commerce, the Inquiry provisionally finds that conflicts of interest arise in operating a marketplace for third party sellers and selling one’s own retail products. This may result in self-preferencing conduct such as product gating, retail buyers given access to seller data to target successful products, preferential display ads and promotions. The lack of a speedy resolution process also adds to the costs borne by sellers. The Inquiry provisionally recommends an internal structural separation of retail from the marketplace to implement equitable and competitively neutral processes.
d. In software application stores, the Inquiry provisionally finds that South African applications (“Apps”) face challenges to their
larger global App development companies. The Inquiry provisionally recommends that App stores provide country-specific curation of App recommendations and provide free promotional credits to South African App developers to enhance
their visibility.

Regarding the participation by historically disadvantaged persons (HDPs), the Inquiry has provisionally found that the digital economy is far less inclusive to HDPs than many traditional industries. In addition, there are considerably more challenges faced by HDPs, especially as regards funding and support. These are as follows:
a. For HDP digital entrepreneurs, general wealth inequality presents a hurdle to seed funding from close associates, and the venture capital industry offers little at this stage. Beyond seed funding, venture capital funds only seek out HDP entrepreneurs where those funds have an express mandate to that effect. Such mandates are rare beyond the SA SME Fund (a joint government and CEO initiative). The Inquiry provisionally recommends specific commitments on HDP mandates from private investors and for government to channel funds for HDP digital entrepreneurs through mandates to the venture capital sector along with requirements for transformation of the sector.
b. A lack of assets and funding hinder HDP business’ ability to onboard and exploit the opportunities provided by digital platforms.
recommendation is that all leading platforms provide HDP businesses with personalised onboarding, a waiver on onboarding costs and fees, free promotional credits, fees that are no higher than the best placed, and the opportunity for consumers to discover HDP businesses on the platform.

Advocacy interventions

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The CCSA has continued its work with the Intergovernmental Fintech Working Group (“IFWG”), which includes financial services regulators as well as the information regulator. The IFWG has produced several position papers. These include Regulating Open Finance Consultation and Research Paper, FinTech platform activity in South Africa and its regulatory implications; and the position paper on crypto assets. These papers seek to understand the growing role of FinTech’s and innovation in the South African financial sector and explore how regulators can more proactively assess emerging risks and opportunities in the market. The next steps for the IFWG include dealing with customer data ownership and data standards and engaging with the information regulator, exposition of potential competition aspects related to open finance and how to mitigate anti competition behaviours. This showcases that the regulation of digital markets requires a multidisciplinary approach.


Any steps your agency has taken to strengthen its institutional capabilities to better equip it to deal with digital competition issues (for example, by forming a special unit, recruiting more data specialists, building new investigative tools, or gathering new/different evidence).

The CCSA has prioritised strengthening its institutional capacity in digital markets by targeting the training of investigators and economists in international courses and conferences to upgrade skills. However, the CCSA has used an active enforcement approach as the prime vehicle for deepening its understanding of these markets and to upgrade toolkits at the same time. The CCSA had initiated a project to use digital tools in the detection and investigation of collusion and assist generally on digital market cases. The CCSA has partnered with academic institutions to bring in their artificial intelligence expertise rather than seeking to hire and build internal capacity.

Following engagements with national and provincial governments to understand the extent and format of tender information, the Commission has begun a process of designing algorithmic programmes to detect collusion. This has been greatly aided by engagements with other competition agencies globally to discuss their experience as to what has worked and what has not. Similarly, for data specialists the CCSA has not sought to hire in those skills yet but rather to put together a panel of local experts that may be drawn on in enforcement or research. This approach was adopted as the best means to establish what the use case is for such skills, what specific skills are most valuable and the frequency of data specialist requirements. It is only if there is an ongoing demand in investigation across different enforcement areas and the ability to sustainable source the right skillsets that the CCSA will invest in hiring. The panel approach is also a means to interest data scientists in competition law enforcement and potentially establish career paths in this area. The CCSA together with the competition authorities of Egypt, Kenya, Nigeria and Mauritius, launched a digital markets enforcement initiative, given the greater shared challenges that digital markets pose for African countries. The aforementioned jurisdictions recognize that these challenges necessitate closer co-operation in order to share knowledge, develop effective strategies in digital markets and provide a stronger united front in dealing with global tech companies. The initiative has agreed to enhance strategic collaboration between the authorities by: (i) Scoping the conduct in digital markets, that has been the subject of investigation in other jurisdictions, on African consumers, businesses and economies with the purpose of fair regulation and enforcement in Africa (where applicable); (b) Researching the barriers to the emergence and expansion of African digital platforms and firms that may contribute to enhanced competition and inclusion in these markets for the benefit of African consumers and economies; (c) Cooperating in the assessment of global, continental, and regional mergers and acquisitions in digital markets, including harmonizing the notification framework; without prejudice to confidentiality commitments; (d) To share information in accordance with existing laws and applicable protocols; and (e) Sharing knowledge and build capacity to deal with digital markets. As part of this initiative, a series of technical workshops are forthcoming in 2022 to commence the collaborative baseline research mapping the digital landscape in all participating countries. This research will assist in obtaining a deeper understanding of the extent of consumer adoption and emerging market structure across the main types of digital markets in a country. Country-specific factors across Africa will impact on the extent of adoption by consumers and the emergence of domestic digital firms alongside global ones.

The CCSA has continued its engagement with the European Union (EU) to provide an opportunity for mutual learning using the SA/EU Dialogue Facility to host a series of workshops in partnership with the Directorate-General of Competition in the European Commission (DG Comp). The Dialogue has been extended and will examine issues of remedial action and data protection issues in a forthcoming workshop in 2022.

Whether, in your jurisdiction, (a) there have been any national reforms or new laws or regulations to better address digital competition issues, or (b) there are any significant proposed reforms pending before national legislative or regulatory bodies to better address digital competition issues.

The Inquiry has provisionally identified the potential need for proactive regulations or guidelines in respect of a few categories of circumstances in addition to the remedial action proposed in the provisional report. First, to bring potentially new leading platforms within the ambit of the current proposed remedies that would be imposed on existing leading platforms. Second, to proactively prevent certain conduct in intermediation platforms that are still maturing and where the conduct is likely to emerge in the future, but where there is clear potential for harm. The provisional proposal for regulations or guidelines would cover the following areas: a. A process for the identification and review of leading platform status b. Prohibition of the following conduct which has an adverse effect on intermediation platform competition (1) The use of price parity clauses (wide or narrow) or achievement of the same outcome through price quality factors in the SERP ranking algorithm; (2) Restrictions or frictions on multi-homing by business users including exclusivity arrangements, interoperability limitations and multi-year contracting; (3) Loyalty schemes that leverage the leading position of the platform, including visibility on the platform, to get business users to fund the scheme in whole or part. c. Prohibition of the following conduct which distorts competition amongst business users and/or results in their exploitation (1) Self-preferencing conduct of any sort; (2) Discrimination in listing, commission or promotional fees against SMEs/HDPs beyond a maximum cap; (3) A lack of adequate transparency over promoted listings as advertising; (4) The excessive sale of visibility through demoting organic results; and (5) Permitting algorithm biases that favour one group or another.

Any law enforcement, regulatory, or policy work by your agency concerning digital competition issues that has involved interaction with non-competition agencies or other laws or policy areas—such as privacy, consumer protection, or media sustainability—and how it was or is being handled.

Work in the fintech area is being done through the IFWG as outlined above. The CCSA has also put together a workshop with the Information Regulator of South Africa to discuss the interface of the two agencies around data privacy and data access for competition.

New Guidelines on the Exchange of Competitively Sensitive Information: 5 years with little change?

South African antitrust enforcer releases Amended Guidelines

By Joshua Eveleigh and Jemma Muller

On 12 September 2022, the Competition Commission of South Africa (“Commission”) published the Guidelines on the Exchange of Competitively Sensitive Information between Competitors under the Competition Act No. 89 of 1998 (the “Amended Guidelines”).

The original Guidelines were released for comment on 14 July 2017; they were created to provide guidance to industry stakeholders on when information exchanges between competitors should be considered harmful to competition (and thus fall foul of the Competition Act) and when they could be considered efficiency-enhancing. The creation of the Guidelines was a welcomed development, as it sought to provide industry stakeholders with insight as to how the Commission will assess whether a particular information exchange between competitors amounts to an antitrust violation, specifically a contravention of section 4 of the Competition Act.

The Amended Guidelines have now been published to address certain concerns raised by industry stakeholders in relation to their first iteration.

Notably, the originally published draft was reported to have received substantive comments from industry stakeholders relating to:

  1. what constitutes “commercially sensitive information”;
  2. the broadness of the Guidelines and lack of safe harbours within them;
  3. additional guidance as to the type of information competitors may lawfully share;
  4. industry-specific concerns; and
  5. public announcements.

Whilst acknowledging that the first iteration of the Guidelines was overly broad, the Commission states that this was an intentional decision.  Notably, the  Amended Guidelines remain just as broad, with the Commission rather opting to determine market-=specific safe harbours on a case-by-case basis.

Additionally, the Commission — now under the aegis of its new head, Doris Tshepe — has chosen to exclude from the Amended Guidelines any discussion of complex topics (such as price signalling, joint ventures, cross-directorship and shareholding, requests for quotations, market studies and benchmarking), instead deciding to rule on these issues on an ad hoc basis.

One substantive difference between the original and Amended Guidelines is the recent departure from the term “commercially sensitive information” to the newly adopted “competitively sensitive information”. In this respect, only information that is likely to have an effect on competition is prohibited in terms of the Guidelines, including: prices, customer lists, production costs, quantities, turnovers, sales, capacities, qualities, marketing plans, risks, investments, technologies, research and development programmes and their results.

While the narrowing of the scope of the amended Guidelines to “competitively sensitive information” and the decision to provide more focused guidance to industry associations ought to be a welcome change, it is likely that stakeholders will continue to perceive the Amended Guidelines as overly broad. In this regard, the Commission has seemingly ignored stakeholders’ previous comments to the original Guidelines, particularly in relation to a lack of safe harbours and industry-specific concerns. In this respect, the Amended Guidelines continue to have little impact on a firm’s ability to self-regulate its conduct in compliance with the Competition Act.

The Amended Guidelines are open for public comment until 04 November 2022 and can be accessed here.

Insurance companies raided by antitrust agency for alleged rate-setting collusion

PRICE-FIXING ALLEGATIONS LEAD TO THURSDAY’S DAWN RAIDS AT MAJOR SOUTH AFRICAN INSURANCE COMPANIES

By Michael-James Currie and Joshua Eveleigh

On 25 August 2022, the South African Competition Commission (“SACC”) announced that it was conducting so-called ‘dawn raids’ as part of an ongoing investigation into the industry, initiated in 2021. The raid took place simultaneously at 8 of South Africa’s major insurance firms: Discovery Limited; Hollard Insurance Group (Pty) Ltd; Momentum, a division of MNI Limited; Old Mutual Limited; BrightRock Life Limited; FMI, a division of Bidvest Life Limited; Professional Provident Society Limited, and South African National Life Assurance Company (Pty) Ltd (together, the “Insurance Firms”).

Notably, all of the Insurance Firms operate within the long-term insurance market.

The SACC’s decision to raid the premises of the Insurance Firms comes as the result of suspicions that the they had agreed to fix prices and/or trading terms in relation to certain investment products in contravention of section 4(1)(i) of the Competition Act, 89 of 1998 (“Competition Act”). Specifically, the SACC stated that it was in possession of information implicating the Insurance Firms in a scheme to share information regarding premium rates on risk-related products and fees for other investment products.

Says John Oxenham, a lawyer with Primerio Ltd., “[a]lthough dawn raids form part of the SACC’s ordinary evidence gathering procedure and is not indicative of the guilt of the Insurance Firms, the sharing of information would enable the coordination of increased prices.” Given that the clients of the Insurance Firms include both natural and juristic persons, the effect of the alleged conduct would have far-reaching and adverse effects on consumers, particularly where those consumers are sensitive to price increases.  Continues attorney Oxenham: “In this respect, it would be unsurprising if the SACC were to continue on its path of highlighting ‘public-interest‘ objectives by pursuing the investigation against the Insurance Firms and seeking the maximum penalty in respect of a contravention of section 4(1)(b)(i) – 10% of the Firm’s annual turnover in and from South Africa, for first-time offenders.”

Mr. Oxenham’s colleague, Andreas Stargard, notes the size of the RSA insurance market, and points out that the dawn raids occurred across the entire geography of the Republic of South Africa: “South Africa alone makes up over two-thirds of all African insurance premiums continent-wide! Today, the SACC’s spokesperson Sipho Ngwema confirmed today that 5 sites were raided in Gauteng, 2 in the Western Cape, and 1 in KwaZulu-Natal. This simultaneous and unannounced action is testament to the Commission’s bench strength, no doubt assisted by local provincial law-enforcement authorities, as is usually the case across in antitrust raids across the globe, where the actual evidence-gathering procedure is not only undertaken by government competition lawyers, but rather significantly assisted by local police, sheriffs, or similar enforcement agencies”. Finally, Stargard notes, “it remains to be seen whether this raid occurred as a result purely of the agency’s prior sector investigation, or whether there was (or were) any whistleblower(s) seeking leniency for their participation in the alleged cartel conduct, thus enabling the SACC to pursue a targeted and well-founded raid.”

Interestingly, a U.S. consulting firm, McKinsey, which has been involved with several South African government agencies and quasi-governmental entities, recently published an article entitled “Africa’s insurance market is set for takeoff“, noting that the “African insurance market’s immaturity points to significant scope for growth”:

Africa’s insurance industry is valued at about $68 billion in terms of GWP and is the eighth largest in the world—although this is not equally distributed across the continent. Markets are inconsistent in terms of size, mix, growth, and degree of consolidation, with 91 percent of premiums concentrated in just ten countries. South Africa, the largest and most established insurance market, accounts for 70 percent of total premiums. Outside of South Africa, we see six primary insurance regions in Africa. In the Southern Africa region, 54 percent of premiums are for life insurance. Nonlife insurance, however, plays a larger role in anglophone West Africa, North Africa, East Africa, and even more so in francophone Africa

It remains to be seen whether the effect of today’s raids in the RSA will hinder the predicted “takeoff” of the insurance industry, or assist in its growth within permissible, lawful boundaries.

Tourvest wins on appeal in precedent-setting cartel case: you don’t become a ‘competitor’ solely by virtue of contracting

CAC ruled in favour of Tourvest nine years after allegedly collusive tender for retail space at Johannesburg airport took place

By Jemma Muller and Nicola Taljaard

In a recent judgment, the South African Competition Appeal Court (“CAC”) provided clarity on the characterization inquiry necessitated by section 4(1)(b) of the Competition Act 89 of 1998. The judgment particularly elucidated the way in which the requirement that the parties must be in an actual or potential horizontal relationship at the time that the offence in issue is committed, must be construed.

The CAC set aside and replaced the Competition Tribunal’s (“Tribunal”) decision wherein it found that Tourvest Holdings (Pty) Ltd (“Tourvest”) was guilty of collusive tendering or price fixing under section 4(1)(b) in relation to tenders issued by Airports Company South Africa (“ACSA”).

The CAC found that Tourvest and the Siyanisiza Trust (“Trust”) agreed to cooperate instead of competing on a tender issued by ACSA by concluding a Memorandum of Understanding (“MoU”) before submitting their separate bids in relation to tenders issued by ACSA. In terms of the MoU, Tourvest agreed to provide the Trust with the expertise, management infrastructure, technology and training that the Trust would require to bid.

Despite the historically vertical relationship between the parties, the Tribunal found that the parties had become actual competitors by submitting separate bids for the same tender (i.e., horizontality by bidding) and potential competitors under the MoU, and alternatively, that the parties became potential competitors by virtue of holding themselves out as competitors submitting bids against one another (i.e., by creating the illusion of competition).

Before scrutinizing the Tribunal’s specific findings in relation to horizontality, the CAC found that the Tribunal misdirected itself by embarking on a characterization inquiry which failed to recognize the character of the parties’ relationship absent the impugned agreement – which relationship was clearly vertical in nature. The CAC explained that, if absent the agreement the parties were not potential competitors, then the agreement could not have removed a potential competitor from the market and could also not have harmed competition, as there was none to start with. The CAC based its reasoning on the purpose of section 4(1)(b) of the Competition Act, which stated as being to penalize ‘conduct which is so egregious that no traditional defence is permitted’. Accordingly, its purpose is not to capture conduct which, correctly characterized, does not harm competition.

With regard to the Tribunal’s specific findings of horizontality, the CAC found that:

  • The submission of separate bids for the same tender could not in and of itself bring the impugned conduct within the ambit of section 4(1)(b);
  • The wording of section 4(1)(b) is clear in that it requires the parties to be in an actual or potential horizontal relationship. Section 4(1)(b) cannot be interpreted to infer strict liability on parties by virtue of them ‘pretending’ to be a competitor (i.e., horizontality by illusion). If parties are ‘ineligible’ to bid as competitors by virtue of their trading environment, they may not be construed as potential competitors. In casu, the Trust was not eligible to participate in the tender as it did not meet the tender criteria; and
  • It is illogical and contrary to the provisions of section 4(1)(b) to conclude that the parties could become competitors in the future by virtue of the tender’s enterprise development purpose. The potential to compete cannot be rationalized from the impugned agreement itself. Rather, it is the (horizontal-or-not) nature of the parties’ relationship at the time the offence in issue is committed, which must be assessed.

Doris Tshepe to lead Africa’s major antitrust enforcer as of September 2022

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.

Andreas Stargard and Outgoing Commissioner Tembinkosi Bonakele (South Africa)

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.

Incoming Commissioner Doris Tshepe

African antitrust authority edges closer to becoming price regulator

The South African Competition Commission warns against unjustifiable price increases of basic foods, particularly edible oil

By Gina Lodolo and Nicola Taljaard

Recent increases in the prices of edible oils have been the focus of news reports. Some retailers have been garnering particular attention for limiting the amount of oil that can be purchased per consumer.

The Chief Economist of the South African Competition Commission (“SACC”), James Hodge, highlighted the price of oil increasing by 42% over a year. This is significant as it reflects 3%-5% of poorer households’ food budget. It has been reported that, although there were already market factors last year affecting the price of oil, the Russia-Ukraine war has certainly exacerbated the situation. Hodge warns, however, that retailers and edible oil companies alike should not unreasonably use the Russia-Ukraine war to raise prices to unjust levels by inflating their price increases more than necessary, thereby seeking to earn ‘excessive profits’.

The SACC will look into the issue more closely. If and when the SACC comes to the conclusion that companies profiteer from their customers, they will act accordingly.

Where costs go up, there may be justifiable increases in prices, however, its recent warning against unjustifiable increases indicates that it will act where prices increase beyond justifiable cost-increase levels. Accordingly, the SACC is considering items that indicate unusual increases, even when taking into consideration the prevailing inflationary environment.

To this effect, Hodge emphasised that the SACC makes use of its ‘monitoring unit’ which tracks price increases by comparing increases in wholesale prices to increases in retail prices.

The work of the monitoring unit is particularly timely in light of its recent Report on Essential Food Pricing Monitoring, which was released on 1 March 2022. The Report clearly communicated the SACC’s intention to start tracking price increases and monitoring dynamics prevalent in the South African food value chain, which made it apparent that the SACC is cognizant of the impact of the significant disruptions and events which have characterized the pandemic years. The SACC has identified this impact to reflect particularly through supply chain disruptions, trade restrictions, border closures and the like.  

Should the SACC suspect that retail price increases have surpassed wholesale price increases, complaints may be initiated by the SACC in terms of Section 49B of the Competition Act 89 of 1998. Thereafter, the complaint will be investigated in terms of Section 49B(3) of the Act to determine whether it will be referred to the Competition Tribunal for adjudication.   

Concentration and Participation in the South African Economy: Levels and Trends – SACC Publishes Report

By Michael-James Currie & Gina Lodolo

On 7 December 2021, the Minister of Trade, Industry and Competition, Ebrahim Patel released a report titled “Measuring concentration and participation in the South African Economy: Levels and Trends”, accessible here (“Concentration Report”). This Concentration Report is the first of many as the Minster undertook to update the report bi-annually from hereon out.

The theme of the Concentration Report is centered on identifying and remedying:

  • Economic levels and trends that are skewed and don’t reflect South Africa’s population demographic; and
  • Entrenched leaders in certain sectors, which creates “inefficient concentration” by setting high barriers to entry thereby reducing competition, which, according to the Concentration Report, can lead to higher prices and lower investment in South Africa.

The Concentration Report highlights that concentrated markets are of a rising concern internationally, however, specifically in the South African context, the apartheid era created dominant firms that persist and prevent historically excluded persons from participating and gaining market share.

The Competition Commission (“SACC”) does however note that concentration does not automatically mean there is a lack of competition and there may be many instances where concentration will be for the benefit of the consumer and pro-competitive. In this regard pro-competitive concentration can be seen when innovation creates increased market size and economies of scale reduce prices for consumers. Further, the SACC notes that there are still gaps in the data, which will be addressed in the subsequent reports.

The Concentration Report highlights that the SACC will hereinafter be concentrating its efforts on markets that have been identified to contain a role player that is presumed dominant. In this regard, the sectors that have been identified as requiring increased scrutiny are:

  • Farming inputs;
  • Agro-processing;
  • Sin (alcohol and tobacco) industries;
  • Healthcare;
  • Communications;
  • Upstream steel value; and
  • Financial services

This increased scrutiny will be seen particularly in industries that require licenses to operate. This is of concern to the SACC because licensing can be used as a mechanism to spread out ownership, which may be curtailed by a merger, and the SACC has seen increased merger activity particularly in industries characterized by licensing requirements.

To conclude, it is vital to take cognizance of this Concentration Report because the SACC has highlighted that it will form the basis of strategic enforcement of the Competition Act 18 of 2018 (“Act”) and will lay the path for policy centered on a concentrated economy.  In this regard, we foresee closer scrutiny of role players with large market shares in the years to come, especially those players that are presumed to be dominant or expressly mentioned in the Concentration Report.

A further challenge that the Commission faces in tackling perceived high-levels of concentration, is balancing the clear socio-economic objectives with competition law goals and consumer welfare enhancing conduct. Although the Report acknowledges that high concentration does not mean the market is anti-competitive, the general policy of the Report is clearly aimed as protecting or promoting a designated group of competitors as opposed to the competitive process itself. This creates an inherent policy tension and requires very clear, transparent and quantifiable trade-offs.

As the Constitutional Court recently affirmed in the Mediclinic case, higher prices to consumers is not in the public interest. The converse is of course also true. Intervention in markets which may lead to adverse effects on consumer welfare would need to be weighed against the objective of “opening up” the market. Where healthy and efficient entry is permissible, that may well be consumer welfare enhancing but if remedial actions are deigned to simply protect inefficient market participants then interventionist measures are likely to amount to nothing more than a tax on large players which either ultimately gets passed on to consumers or discourages investment. It is absolutely critical to South Africa’s economy and to the integrity of the competition law regime that the latter consequences do not materialize.

You can access the summary report here: https://www.compcom.co.za/wp-content/uploads/2021/12/Concentration-Tracker-Summary-Report.pdf

China tells Africa: ‘Monopolies bad!’

In an interesting twist, a representative of the last properly remaining centralised economy (the People’s Republic of China) has admonished African nations (specifically South Africa, where he acts as Ambassador) to enhance competition-law enforcement against dominant firms, including Western tech giants.

We observe that his statement is an “interesting” twist, because the Editor was taught over the years in several (perhaps faulty?) history lessons that the PRC itself had been inarguably heavily reliant on government-run monopoly companies for decades.

But let’s cut to the chase of what Mr. Xiaodong is actually saying: his thesis, not exactly ground-breaking in antitrust circles, can be summarised succinctly as “excessive power and influence of technology giants hinder innovation and competition and increases economic inequality.” There!

With regards to the applicability of his thesis to South Africa, the ambassador notes that “Antimonopoly practices also exist in SA. The control over data fees and food prices imposed by big corporations here has safeguarded consumers’ rights and interests. Monopolistic actions in the platform economy is also a matter of grave concern for SA’s Competition Commission. No country can turn a blind eye to the negative externality of the emerging digital economy.”

Image credit: Shutterstock

“Negative externalities…” sound very much like proper Western antitrust-economics-speak. Interesting. However, there is of course an ulterior motive behind this little lesson in competition economics from his excellency, the honorable ambassador. It comes at the end of his “opinion” piece: China would like to do more business in Africa, strengthen its ties, and deepen its influence (including in the area of education – beware!)… In the diplomat’s own words: “China’s high quality economic development brings greater opportunities for Africa’s development. … And China’s current cumulative investment in SA has exceeded $25bn, creating more than 400,000 jobs directly and indirectly in the region and making big contributions to SA’s economic and social development.”

Curious news, perhaps not so much any more after digging deeper. Especially when the interested reader googles (oh yes, coincidentally using that same FAANG company’s services that Mr. Xiadong’s diatribe indirectly disparages here) the simple search term “China – Africa“, the latest news from today’s South China Morning Post is that “China seeks to expand influence in Africa with more digital projects…” — nice coincidence.

Well, now readers of AAT know.

China wants to “share the achievements of digital technology with Africa to promote interconnectivity”

Revisiting the Burger King prohibition: [Unintended] Consequences & [Possible] Reconsideration

By Joshua Eveleigh

On the 1 June 2021, the South African Competition Commission (SACC) released its media statement announcing the prohibition of ECP Africa’s proposed acquisition of Burger King (South Africa) and Grand Foods Meat Plant Pty (Ltd) from Grand Parade Investments.   AAT published a note on this precedent-setting decision here.

Despite finding that the acquisition would not have any likely effect of substantially lessening or preventing competition, the transaction was prohibited as it would result in the merged entity having no ownership by historically disadvantaged persons (HDPs) and workers. In its media statement, the SACC states that both Burger King SA and Grand Foods Meat Plant form part of an empowering entity in which HDP’s have 68% ownership. This ownership stake would decrease to 0% if the transaction were to be approved. In this regard, Tembinkosi Bonakele, chairperson of the SACC, states:

“You had an entity that had quite an impressive transformation profile, and all of that was going to disappear at the stroke of a pen with this transaction.”

Unsurprisingly, Grand Parade Investments, as well as the general public, have responded to the SACC’s decision with discontent.

The topical concerns regarding the prohibition of the acquisition include:

  1. The unintended, prejudicial impact upon black shareholders of sellers / target companies; and
  2. The equally detrimental deterrence of foreign direct investment (FDI) into the Republic of South Africa.

i. Harm to HDP shareholders

Grand Parade Investments had supposedly been attempting to sell Burger King and Grand Foods Meat Plant for a period of 18 months in order to settle debts and pay dividends to its black shareholders, whom had reportedly not received dividends for a number of years. Furthermore, the shareholders would incur even greater harm upon the SACC’s media statement as Grand Parade Investments share price would plummet by 10%, making future dividend payouts ever less likely.

Bonakele argues that the Competition Act cannot waiver in its goal of transformation purely because of the prejudicial impact that a decision may have on individuals.

“This is about the system, it is not about individual shareholders. We are not really concerned about the immediate impact on Joe Soap today, that’s not the criteria.

ii. Deterring FDI

The decision of the SACC raises varying concerns for foreign investors, and understandably so. The key concerns can be encapsulated into the following: certainty, timing and costs.

Firstly, merger review is subject to ever-evolving standards. In this regard, foreign investors cannot approach a merger with full certainty as to whether it will be approved or not. Moreover, continually changing standards presents increased opportunities of opposition from competition authorities which furthers investor uncertainty. Secondly, subsequent to changing standards and increased opposition, the timing of proposed mergers is significantly lengthened. Lastly, the imposition of non-competition conditions on transactions incurs significant costs on the burden of investors.

These principles of certainty, timing and costs can be considered as the essential elements of a sound merger regime. Ultimately, the SACC’s decision of prohibition strikes at the balance of South Africa’s merger regime by introducing great uncertainty, prolonged timing and greater costs  – all of which present themselves as significant areas of concern for foreign investors.

In response to these FDI concerns, Bonakele states that South Africa’s democratic sustainability is of paramount importance and that foreign investors must consider the long-term effects that exclusionary investments would have on the Republic, particularly in regard to transformation and empowerment:

“But it’s not like empowerment imperatives are less important than FDI.”

A potential for reconsideration?

A window for reconsideration of the proposed acquisition presents itself where the merging parties present a better offering of HDP ownership. Bonakele suggests that this is potentially on the table as the parties to the agreement have continued engagement despite the SACC’s decision.

Therefore, the proposed acquisition may eventually find approval where ECP Africa and Grand Parade Investments agree on an improved HDP empowerment plan, of which the SACC is satisfied.

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Conclusion

In essence, the SACC’s decision to prohibit the proposed acquisition of Burger King (South Africa) and Grand Foods Meat Plant by ECP Africa has had prejudicial effects upon the seller’s black shareholders.

Further, the decision presents concern for foreign direct investment by striking at the essential elements of a sound merger regime, namely: certainty, timing and costs.

However, the chairperson of the SACC has now noted that the SACC may change its initial decision upon the improvement of empowerment considerations between the parties to the transaction.

Competition Law Africa conference 2021 / this Tuesday

The Informa Competition Law Africa conference is back with a vengeance this year, albeit still held virtually due to the pandemic.

The overview can be found here, and the more detailed agenda here.

Speakers include South African enforcer Hardin Ratshisusu, COMESA chief Willard Mwemba, the OECD’s competition expert Frederic Jenny, Mahmoud Momtaz, head of the Egyptian competition authority, Lufuno Shinwana, senior legal counsel on competition issues for Anheuser-Busch Inbev, Ntokozo Mabhena, Anglo American’s Legal Advisor, and Maureen Mwanza, head of legal for the Zambian CCPC.

Primerio partner, Andreas Stargard, will host the afternoon panel on Vertical Restraints, interviewing Okikiola Litan, Senior Counsel, Commercial and Competition Law, with Coca-Cola Hellenic Bottling Company.