South Africa: MultiChoice may face competition authorities for abuse of dominance

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On Digital Media (“ODM”), owner of TopTV, has filed a complaint with the South African Competition Commission (“Commission”) against the Naspers controlled company, MultiChoice (which owns DStv as well as SuperSport) alleging abuse of dominance.

ODM alleges that SuperSport unfairly refused to share rights to all Premier Soccer League (“PSL”) matches from 2011 until 2016 with ODM. ODM submits that there is “not another sports broadcaster in the world today that enjoys a similar level of dominance to that of SuperSport” and has accused MultiChoice of contravening the Competition Act 89 of 1998 (“Act”) by refusing to give it access to, what ODM believes, is an “essential facility”, when it is feasible to do so.

The ODM complaint was lodged with the Commission several months ago following a statement made in parliament by Communications Minister Dina Pule, that the Minister would issue a policy directive to the Independent Communications Authority of South Africa to address competition in the broadcasting sector.

Commission spokesman, Keitumetse Letebele, said that the complaint is still being processed by the Commission’s screening unit who will write a recommendation to the Commissioner to either drop the case or pursue further investigation.

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Class Actions in South Africa?

Nortons Inc., together with the South African Chamber of Commerce and Industry (SACCI) and the Mandela Institute at Wits School of Law, have gathered together a panel of experts to discuss the judgment in Pioneer Foods last year and the effects it has on South Africa’s jurisprudence & business community.

The seminar is entitled: “A new class – the problems and promises of class action litigation in South African law” and runs from 8:00 am – 4:30 pm on Wednesday, 12 June 2013, in Johannesburg at the Wits School of Law (map).

For more information, a full schedule, and to RSVP & sign up,

please visit the event page here.

Background:

On 29 November 2012, Judge Wallis of the Supreme Court of Appeal (the “SCA”) handed down judgment in The Trustees of The Children’s Resource Centre / Pioneer Foods (Pty) Limited & Others. The case related to the certification of a class in respect of a number of class actions against three bread producers arising from an investigation by the Competition Commission into price fixing and market allocation in respect of various bread products (the “Bread class action litigation”).

The appeals were brought by a bread distributor in the Western Cape and by a number of organisations in relation to a so-called “consumer” class action for damages after their applications were dismissed by the Western Cape High Court (the “WCHC”).

In its decision the SCA held that class actions should be recognised, not only in respect of constitutional claims, but also in any other case where access to justice in terms of Section 34 of the Constitution required that it would be the most appropriate means of litigating the claims of the members of the class. The SCA then laid down the requirements for such an action, commencing with the need for certification by the court at the outset, before even the issuing of summons. For this purpose, the SCA set out the following criteria before a court could certify a class action:

  • there must be an objectively identifiable class;
  • a cause of action must exist which raises a triable issue;
  • there must be common issues of law and fact that can appropriately be dealt with in the interests of all members of the class;
  • there must be appropriate procedures for distributing damages to the members of the class; and
  • the representatives must be suitable to conduct the litigation on behalf of the class.

The SCA found that the appellants’ case had changed during the course of the litigation; and it held that their definition of the proposed class was over-broad and the relief they sought inappropriate. However, Wallis JA held that their claim was potentially plausible and, as this was the first time that the SCA had laid down the requirements for bringing a class action, it was appropriate to afford the appellants an opportunity to remedy the flaws in their papers in compliance with these new requirements. Accordingly, the SCA remitted the matter back to the WCHC.

ArcelorMittal, Telkom, now Sasol? “Excessive pricing” case going to trial in South Africa

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Settling the South African Competition Commission’s case against alleged collusion in the polypropylene market [for no less than R111 million] back in 2010 was not to be the end of Sasol‘s long antitrust journey in the polymers world.

The S.A. Competition Tribunal is hearing the excessive-pricing portion (which was not settled) of the Commission‘s claims against the refining & steel giant this month.  The relevant legal underpinning of the case is the provision against excessive pricing by a dominant firm.  Precedent has declared prices excessive that “bear no reasonable relation to the economic value of the good or service” at issue.  Pheeew.  Facts.  Economics.  Nice.  Looks like a coming battle of the experts to me…

By comparison, in the U.S., antitrust law of course does not forbid “excessive pricing.”  While setting and reaping apparently high prices may be indicative of monopoly power, such acts are not in themselves anti-competitive or illegal in the States.  In Verizon v. Trinko, the U.S. Supreme Court held famously that:

The mere possession of monopoly power, and the concomitant charging of monopoly prices, is not only not unlawful; it is an important element of the free-market system. The opportunity to charge monopoly prices—at least for a short period—is what attracts “business acumen” in the first place; it induces risk taking that produces innovation and economic growth.

Interestingly, there is a notable history of failures in the area of ‘excessive pricing’ complaints in South Africa, as well, despite the statutory legitimisation of the cause of action.  In the prior ArcelorMittal and Telkom cases, the Commission and/or Tribunal lost in the end, either at trial or on appeal to the Competition Appeal Court.  That Court had found, in the ArcelorMittal case, that the antitrust watchdogs could not use the ‘excessive pricing’ provision of the statute to combat perceived anti-competitiveness in the “market structure rather than price level.”

We will, of course, report on the ongoing trial and ultimate outcome of this high-profile case, as it unfolds.

S.A. dominance in the Nigerian mobile telecom market? MTN concerned.

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AllAfrica.com reports that South African telecom giant MTN is in discussions with Nigeria’s Communications Commission (“NCC”) (again, note that Nigeria doesn’t have a competition law regime) relating to its 44% market share in mobile telephony in the country.

The NCC published its report in PDF format on its web site. The report, entitled “Determination of Dominance in Selected Communications Markets in Nigeria“, states in relevant part:

Nigeria is the fastest growing telecommunications market in Africa, rising from a meagre 500,000 telephone subscribers in 2001 to over 108 million as at December 2012 …

As the news report states, MTN is not accused of any abuse of its market power — that is, the hallmark of a unilateral / dominance case, abuse of dominance, is apparently yet absent from the NCC’s phantom case against the provider. What the NCC is worried about inter alia, however, is the preferential treatment given to MTN’s own customers and calls amongst that group. That’s interesting, because many providers across the world have similar “in-network” call rates (indeed, often even free allowances for in-network calls) without triggering antitrust review. The NCC does not perceive dominance issues in fixed voice or mobile data market segments. Rather than relying on the investigated operators’ submissions (proposing, among other things, to use a simple Herfindahl-Hirschman Index determination to see if the market segments were ‘concerntrated’), the NCC’s report lays out quite nicely how it used a “Structure‐Conduct‐Performance (SCP) model”.

The SCP model postulates that the structure of a market determines to large extent the conduct of the participants in the market, which in turn, influences the performance of the firms within the market with respect to profitability and efficiency.

We’ll see where this one goes. Perhaps it simply serves to reinforce our prior question: Is it not time for Nigeria to have its own, proper competition-law regime?

South Africa targets private healthcare sector in CC’s ‘market investigation’

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As reported today by Reuters and SA MoneyWeb, the South African government has announced that the South African Competition Commission will launch an investigation into the private healthcare sector. This is part of a larger initiative to conduct so-called “market inquiries,” on which we previously reported here and here, and which are a direct consequence of the March 2013 effective date of the South African Competition Amendment Act of 2009.

The Economic Development Minister Ebrahim Patel said that “[v]arious stakeholders have raised concerns about pricing, costs and the state of competition and innovation in private healthcare.”

Likely affected companies are all major players in the healthcare industry, including providers such as Life Healthcare, Mediclinic International and Netcare Ltd.

Details of $2.9 billion bid-rigging come to light in South African parliament

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As SAcommercialPropNews reports, the South African Parliament heard testimony from the chairman of the Construction Industry Development Board (CIDB), Mr. Bafana Ndendwa, on the developments and results of the South African Competition Commission’s investigation into the building industry at large.

The investigation into the potential 26 billion Rand collusion had begun when building budgets related to the 2010 FIFA soccer world cup in South Africa were plagued with cost overruns.  Since then, it appears that well over 40 construction companies have been investigated by the Commission.  We had previously reported on antitrust settlements in the S.A. building industry here.

Even with some settlements underway, the building-industry antitrust saga appears far from over, though.  Creating a spectre of double jeopardy, Mr. Ndendwa stated that leniency from the Commission may not yield similar treatment by other investigating bodies.  The cited article also quotes members of the ‘Portfolio Committee’ of the Parliament as pressing for criminal charges to be filed.  This is an interesting development, as the South African competition law (as it is currently in effect) does not [yet] provide for criminal sanctions against individuals.  While the law had been amended to include such a provision, the amendments have not yet been ratified and put into effect.

South Africa: Telkom agrees to penalty

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South Africa’s incumbent telecommunications infrastructure provider, Telkom Limited, has agreed to pay R449 million ($49m) to the South African Competition Commission (the “Commission”) to settle allegations that Telkom had abused its dominant market position. The company statement can be found here.

In August 2012, the Competition Tribunal (the “Tribunal“) levied the R449 million fine against Telkom for abusing its dominant position between 1994 and 2004, after the Commission received complaints from, inter alia, the South African Value Added Networks Services.

Telkom subsequently appealed the Tribunal’s decision to the Competition Appeal Court (“CAC“) which the Commission followed with its own appeal to the CAC seeking to increase the fine to R3 billion ($327m). The settlement agreement will effectively result in the parties withdrawing their appeal and/or cross-appeal and cover their own costs. In terms of the agreement, Telkom will pay 50% of the fine within six months and the balance within 18 months.

S.A. mobile operator escapes antitrust investigation

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South African mobile phone and data provider Cell C has managed to avoid a potential Competition Commission investigation upon having changed its text-message (SMS) pricing scheme.  The industry group that was slated to bring a formal complaint, WASPA (no kidding, that’s their actual acronym), decided not to lodge the complaint in light of the less discriminatory pricing of Cell C’s bulk SMS rates.

Ironic? S.A. & Russia to “influence” platinum market “without cartel”

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South Africa and Russia plan to “influence” global platinum market “without cartel” — [it escapes the author how this is possible].

Russia and South Africa, who together hold approximately 80% of worldwide platinum reserves, have signed a provisional agreement to co-ordinate efforts to control the global platinum market. Details of the plan emerged at the fifth summit of emerging economies of Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa (“BRICS”), held in Durban, South Africa last week.

South Africa is the world’s largest producer of platinum, controlling approximately 70% market share, whilst Russia is the world’s top palladium producer, accounting for approximately 40% of the palladium market; Russia notably also holds a further 10% of the platinum market. The two countries jointly possess almost complete market dominance over platinum. The only other significant reserve of platinum that has been extracted outside of Russia and South Africa is in Canada’s Yukon territory, accounting for approximately 3% of the worldwide reserves. In recent years, platinum producers have faced rising production costs and a drop in prices, due to poor demand for the metal.

Therefore, as Russian Natural Resources Minister Sergey Donskoy explained the purpose of the provisional agreement, “Our goal is to co-ordinate our actions accordingly to expand the markets. The price depends on the structure of the market, and we will form the structure of the market.”

South African Mining Minister Susan Shabangu confirmed the plan with Russia, saying: “We’re not really controlling the market” and We want to contribute without creating a cartel, but we want to influence the markets.” The South African Department of Trade and Industry Director-General, Lionel October, said, in support of other comments by Shabangu that “We will give access to minerals and then incentivise companies to add value locally.”

Russia and South Africa’s plans may be derailed due to competition concerns, however.  For example, previous attempts at consolidation within the platinum industry have raised red antitrust flags and were ultimately abandoned. In 1996, Lonmin and Gencor lost an appeal against a European Commission decision blocking the planned merger of their South African platinum mines (Case No. IV/M.619, Commission decision of April 24, 1996). This was the first E.C. decision prohibiting a merger on collective dominance grounds. The Court of First Instance (now called the EU’s General Court) upheld the decision of the Commission, validating its concerns that the merger would result in collective global platinum market dominance (Case T-102/96).

SACC gets 2 new interim deputy commissioners

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According to a statement released by South African Economic Development minister Patel and other online sources (among them polity.org.za and AllAfrica) the South African Competition Commission has appointed two interim deputy commissioners to serve 6-month terms.

The South African Economic Development Department’s statement identifies the two new deputy commissioners as “advocate Oliver Josie and Trudi Makhaya“.

It is noteworthy that both are being recruited from the existing but recently dwindling ranks of the SACC.  We previously reported about one of Ms. Makhaya’s recent competition-focused articles here.

The official statement continues:

“The interim appointments will ensure an uninterrupted service by the Competition Commission, which has a critical role to play in advancing an inclusive economy, promoting competition, combating abuse of market power and supporting job creation and small business development”.