Concurrences: Interview with Commissioner Bonakele

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Antitrust in Developing Countries: Competition Policy in a Politicised World

Our friends at Concurrences Review are hosting the fourth edition of the joint conference co-organized by Concurrences & New York University School of Law, in New York City on October 27, 2017.

Tickets and more information can be obtained here.

Below is the interview of Tembinkosi Bonakele (Commissioner, South African Competition Commission) by Ioannis Lianos (Professor, University College London). The two will participate in the conference panel “Impact of the New Nationalism on Competition and Economic Development in Developing Countries.”

Interview between Prof. Lianos and Commissioner Bonakele

© Concurrences

Competition authorities are increasingly interested in assessing the effects of mergers or other conduct on innovation. How is this concern over the promotion of innovation affecting the substance of competition law enforcement, and in particular the extraterritorial application of competition law, as innovation is often taking place in the context of global value chains? How should one resolve conflicts over competing visions over the impact of competition on innovation, as it seems to be, for instance, the case between the EU and the US, and possibly BRICS countries?

One of the aims of competition law is to encourage innovation. Firms and individuals are incentivised to innovate due to the protection conferred on their innovations by intellectual property laws (IP). Therefore, at least theoretically, competition and IP laws ought to be complementary. However, the conflicts between competition law and innovation/IP laws are increasingly coming into sharp focus within the context of global value chains. One such example is the recent global mega-mergers in the seeds and agro-chemicals sectors. These mergers illustrate how multinationals can leverage their significant innovation and research resources by extending their IP protections through ‘ever-greening’ of patents, reciprocal IP cross licensing arrangements with close rivals, joint ventures and collaborative research and development. This level of collaboration suggests that the seed/agro-processing markets are likely more concentrated than is currently understood. From a policy perspective, competition authorities in both the EU and US seem supportive of this level of concentration based on the theory that such concentration increases innovation, notwithstanding their (unintended) global unilateral effects to which developing countries are especially vulnerable, given the centrality of agriculture for the sustenance of communities in their economies. The vulnerability of developing countries is further exacerbated by the fact that they are trying to regulate multinationals which have access to resources that dwarf the GDPs of many developing countries, and are able to lobby hard politically, against any interventions aimed at their activities.

Against this backdrop, the way forward for BRICS and other developing countries is to continue efforts to establish their own research platforms to enable the true impacts of the trade-off between innovation and competition law to be better understood from a developing country perspective. Furthermore, there is scope for greater global co-ordination amongst competition law agencies to ensure that global transactions are investigated and remedied in a co-ordinated manner.

Broader public policy concerns, than consumer welfare narrowly defined, are increasingly taken into account by various competition law systems around the world, in both developing and developed countries when assessing mergers and, in some instances, anticompetitive conduct. There is also increasing demand for a broader canvas of principles and values in order to assess business conduct, as this is demonstrated by the development of the concepts of “social” and “green” capitalism. Should competition law authorities explore more systematically this trend and eventually move to a public interest standard in assessing anticompetitive conduct, at least in some economic sectors (for instance involving primary goods, such as food, shelter, or with considerable environmental impact etc.)? What would be the implications for the global governance of antitrust?

Many countries already apply tests beyond the typical competition law tests in merger assessments, but they do not declare those tests in an open and transparent way. In contrast, South Africa’s merger regulation explicitly includes a public interest test and guidelines have been issued setting out how the test will be applied during merger assessment.

Should public interest cover some old and emerging social issues such as green issues or the environmental impact on food security, shelter and so on? I think there is scope for these to be part of an assessment of merger transactions, but their location need not necessarily be with a competition agency and they can be properly assessed through a different regulatory agency in a transparent manner. Countries should be allowed to structure their agencies the way they deem fit.

Within South Africa’s context, in order to address historical inequalities and economic and political imbalances, competition legislation specifically provides for both competition law and public interest standards in the merger assessment process. It bears specific mention that the courts have recently confirmed that both the competition law and public interest tests are of equal prominence in any merger determination process. In a developmental context, economic exclusion exacerbates inequality, poverty and unemployment and competition policy in conjunction with industrial policy (introduced through public interest) can break down barriers to entry and unleash innovation and new entry, which are pivotal to the unleashing of economic growth and development.

Although public interest considerations in merger assessment would appear, largely, the preserve of developing countries, developed countries and most notably, the European Union, seem to be re-considering their stance towards public interest considerations in merger assessment. Moreover, the impact of globalisation appears to be giving rise to a new wave of ‘new nationalism’ in developed countries (and the United States is no exception). This has ushered in more inward looking perspectives to international trade and ironically, may give rise to the use of public interest considerations in ‘tit for tat’ exchanges in transactions taking place within an increasingly geopolitical context. Thus, the implications for the global governance of anti-trust may be convergence.

In recent years the competition authorities of BRICS countries and other large emergent economies have been increasingly active in competition law enforcement, adjudicating high profile cases of global importance. The experience gained may be a source of inspiration for competition authorities in other emergent and developing countries, and could also be an important source of learning and wisdom for the competition authorities in developed countries. Do you consider that BRICS and other larger emergent competition authorities should strive to ensure global convergence with the EU and/or US models of competition law, as this is put forward by some, or should they opt for different models, experimentation being an important source of collective learning for both developing and developed countries? Should convergence, or experimentation, be the main/driving principle for the global governance of competition law? 

In the developed world, competition law is applied within a context in which it is presumed that markets are naturally competitive, self-correcting and don’t require policy interventions to address failures. However, that presumption cannot hold true in a developing country context where markets are undeveloped, highly concentrated, non-inclusive and unemployment and inequality are high. In this ‘developmental context’ competition law is applied within a context in which it is presumed that firms with market power exploit it. Therefore, in developmental context, competition law more than just efficiency, but human and socio-economic development as well.

Rather than seeking convergence with developed country perspectives on competition law, developing countries need to play a more prominent role in understanding how competition law policy can be used to address poverty, inequality and unemployment. This will require developing countries through the auspices of representative regional platforms such as BRICS, to enhance co-operation, share experiences and develop legal and competition law expertise from a developmental perspective.

Thus, it is important to appreciate that approaches to competition law in the developed and developing worlds are diverse and that divergence should be tolerated and informed by context. This does not take away the need for global co-operation and sharing best practices. There are also instances where harmonisation may be desirable, like in regions with or striving for common markets.

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Cooperation, handshakes & MoUs: all the rage in African antitrust?

AAT the big picture

Significant Strides made to Promote Harmonisation across African Competition Agencies

By AAT Senior Contributor, Michael-James Currie.

In the past 12 months there has been a steady drive by competition law agencies in Africa to promote harmonisation between the respective jurisdictions.

The African regional competition authority, the COMESA Competition Commission (CCC), has entered into memorandum of understandings with a number of its nineteen member states. On 5 June 2016, it was announced that the CCC has further concluded MoU’s with the Swaziland Competition Commission as well as the Fair Trade Commission of the Seychelles.

On 7 May 2016, it was announced that nine members of the Southern African Development Community (SADC) have also entered into and MoU. These member states include South Africa, Malawi, Botswana, Swaziland, Seychelles, Mozambique, Namibia, Tanzania and Zambia.

The SADC MoU was based on the 2009 SADC Declaration on Regional Cooperation and Consumer Policies.

SADC MoUAccording to the South African Competition Commissioner, Mr Tembinkosi Bonakele, the MoU creates a framework for cooperation enforcement within the SADC region.  “The MoU provides a framework for cooperation in competition enforcement within the SADC region and we are delighted to be part of this historic initiative,” said Bonakele.

Interestingly, although a number of the signatories to SADC MoU are not member states of COMESA (that is, South Africa and Namibia, who in turn, have a MoU between their respective competition authorities), Swaziland, Malawi and the Seychelles have existing MoU’s with the COMESA Competition Commission. Says Andreas Stargard, a competition practitioner with Primerio Ltd., “it will be interesting to see, first, whether there may be conflicts that arise out of the divergent patchwork of cooperation MoUs, and second, to what extent the South African Competition Authorities, for example, could indirectly benefit from the broader cooperation amongst the various jurisdiction and regional authorities.”

Part of the objectives of the MoUs to date has largely been to facilitate an advocacy role. However, from a practical perspective, the SADC MoU envisages broader information exchanges and coordination of investigations.

While the MoU’s are a positive stride in achieving cross-border harmonisation, it remains to be seen to what extent the collaboration will assist the respective antitrust agencies in detecting and prosecuting cross border anticompetitive conduct.

There may be a number of practical and legal hurdles which may provide challenges to the effective collaboration envisaged. The introduction of criminal liability for cartel conduct in South Africa, for example, may provide challenges as to how various agencies obtain and share evidence.

Exclusive AAT interview: Bonakele on antitrust conferences

meet the enforcers

In our latest instalment of our Meet the Enforcers series, we speak with South African Competition Commissioner Tembinkosi Bonakele on the topic of hosting a series of academic & practitioner platforms to discuss cases and developments in competition-law enforcement.

This week, the South African Competition Commission and the Competition Tribunal successfully organised the 9th Annual Conference on Competition Law, Economics & Policy (as part of the 4th BRICS International Competition Conference), taking place in Durban, South Africa.

Commissioner Bonakele, the head of the SACC, discussed hosting the conference with AAT’s contributing author, Njeri Mugure, Esq.  According to his biography, Mr. Bonakele has been with the Commission for the past ten years. He briefly left the Commission in March 2013 and came back in October 2013 as Acting Commissioner. He has been in this position until his appointment as the Commissioner. Bonakele has occupied various positions in the Commission’s core divisions. He was appointed Deputy Commissioner in 2008, and prior to that worked as head of mergers, head of compliance and senior legal counsel respectively.

The AAT-exclusive interview follows:

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AfricanAntitrust.com: South Africa has been participating in the BRICS International Competition Conference (“BRICS ICC”) since 2011, a year after she officially became a member of BRICS. This November the country will host the 4th of this biennial meeting in Durban. What are your goals for this year’s conference?

Tembinkosi Bonakele:

The theme for the BRICS International Competition Conference 2015 is “Competition and Inclusive”. This theme will enable the conference to explore the relationship between competition and growth, competition and employment, competition and inequality and competition and poverty. As with the previous conferences, the aim of the conference is to strengthen cooperation amongst BRICS countries in the area of competition regulation by creating a platform for sharing experiences. We also aim to use the conference to discuss a proposed Memorandum of Understanding between BRICS competition agencies. Finally, the conference is also a platform for both developed and developing countries to discuss competition policy and enforcement issues.

AfricanAntitrust.com: Speaking of Durban, some might have expected for the 9th Annual Competition Law, Economics and Policy Conference (“Annual Competition Conference”) and/or the BRICS ICC to be held in Pretoria, the capital city of South Africa.  Could you tell us why you chose to hold the two conferences in Durban?

Tembinkosi Bonakele:

We wanted a venue that would provide world class facilities for the conference as well as enjoyment for the delegates, and Durban ticks both boxes. The Kwazulu-Natal province, where Durban is situated, is home to rich natural resources, including Africa’s Big Five game and beautiful mountainous landscapes.

Durban itself is a diverse African city providing cultural diversity as well as a natural paradise known for its beautiful coastline beaches and subtropical climate. The City is also host to the largest and busiest harbor in Africa. The Inkosi Albert Luthuli International Convention Centre (Durban ICC), where the two conferences will be held, is the largest indoor conference facility in Africa.

The Commission has previously partnered with the KwaZulu-Natal Provincial Government, eThekwini (Durban) Municipality and the University KwaZulu-Natal on various activities.

AfricanAntitrust.com: In addition to hosting the Annual and the BRICS competition conferences, the South African Competition Commission (“the Commission”) along with Cresse and the University of Kwazulu-Natal will hold a joint workshop exploring areas such as collusions and cartels, unilateral and coordinated effects in mergers, the economics of exclusionary conducts, and use of economic evidence, among others. What do you hope this workshop will achieve?

Tembinkosi Bonakele:

The economic understanding of competition policy is constantly evolving. In the last two decades economists have developed new theories of harm and traditional views have changed significantly. The workshop will bring top quality instruction on the economics of competition to agency officials in South Africa and more broadly Africa, competition practitioners, academics and policy makers. I hope that everyone attending the workshop will walk away having learned something new about the economics of competition.

AfricanAntitrust.com: Speaking of the this year’s events, planning the joint workshop, the Annual Competition Conference and the BRICS ICC was a great undertaking, could you tell us why you decided to have the three events back to back and what audience each event is tailored to suit?

Tembinkosi Bonakele:

With the BRICS conference coming into South Africa was a great opportunity as so many people were interested to come. So many opinion makers, academics and practitioners were going to be in the country, so we organized all these events to take advantage of their presence, and the response was very positive. We also thought logistically it makes sense to have our annual conference organized back to back with BRICS, so we don’t get conference fatigued. In the end, all the events flow into each other.

The Joint Workshop is a technical training and knowledge sharing platform, looking at the latest thinking on various aspects of competition enforcement.

The conference is an annual academic platform to discuss cases and developments in competition law enforcement.

AfricanAntitrust.com: Turning to the BRICS International Competition Conference, in what way has this year’s agenda been informed by the previous three conferences? What impact do you think the previous conferences have had on antitrust discourse in BRICS and non-BRICS countries?

Tembinkosi Bonakele:

The previous conferences, hosted by the Federal Antimonopoly Services of Russia in 2009, the State Administration for Industry and Commerce of the People’s Republic of China in 2011 and Competition Commission of India in 2013, created a solid platform on which we can deepen our relations in the fi­eld of competition regulation.

South Africa has focused the conference on the relationship between growth and inclusivity. Furthermore, this year’s conference aims to institutionalize BRICS cooperation on competition matters, and move it beyond conferences. There is a proposed Memorandum and Understanding, as well as a joint research initiative.

AfricanAntitrust.com: There’s been a lot of debate surrounding public interest factors in merger review. What do you hope to achieve by including the topic to this year’s conference agenda?

Tembinkosi Bonakele:

It is important that BRICS countries weigh-in on this important debate. There is a divergence of views amongst many antitrust practitioners on the compatibility of antitrust issues with public interest issues, but everyone accept that there are public interest issues. The conference will deepen and broaden perspectives on the matter.

AfricanAntitrust.com: How do these engagements such as the BRICS conference and competition law enforcement in general benefit the ordinary South African?

Tembinkosi Bonakele:

The South African competition authorities were established as a package of reforms to transform the unequal South African economy to make it economy inclusive and ensuring that those who participate in it are competitive.

Through engagements such as the BRICS conference we’re able to discuss with our BRICS counterparts how to make our economies, which are similar, more efficient, competitive and inclusive.

The Commission has, in the past 16 years investigated and dismantled cartels from different sectors including construction, bread – a staple food for many South Africans, and cement. In the cement cartel, for instance, the Commission conducted a study post the cartel and discovered that we have saved consumers about R6 billion.

AfricanAntitrust.com: Mr. Bonakele, are there other topics you would have liked to address or comments you would like to add?

Tembinkosi Bonakele:

We see BRICS as an important and strategic platform where we advance arguments about the relationships between competition and other policy instruments that are very relevant in our developing countries.

As a collective, BRICS competition authorities are able to provide leadership in the international antitrust community on what it means to create and enforce competition law and policy in developing economies which come with their own particular challenges and opportunities. These perspectives will serve to enrich the global knowledge base in competition enforcement.

AfricanAntitrust.com: Thank you for taking the time to speak with me, Commissioner!

The interview was conducted by Ms. Mugure for AfricanAntitrust.com on 8 November 2015.

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Landmark bilateral competition agreement takes effect

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South Africa and Namibia sign landmark memorandum of understanding

On 11 November 2015, the Competition Commission of South Africa and theNamibian Competition Commission signed an historic memorandum of understanding (MoU) on cooperation on competition matters both in terms of policy and enforcement.

Andreas Stargard, a director with African competition-law and anti-corruption advisors Pr1merio, points out, that collaboration of the two relatively mature agencies is not new per se:

Having cooperated in prior years on multiple merger investigations (see, e.g., the Wal*Mart / Massmart transaction), the time had come for a formalised agreement in principle between these two key southern-African jurisdictions.  Antitrust practitioners in the region should anticipate a hopefully streamlined process across national borders, especially in terms of merger reviews & clearance, as well as quite likely conduct investigations in the cartel or dominance areas.

Says the SACC’s press release:

“We thank the Namibian Competition Commission for their cooperation. I’m grateful we’re able to formalise our relations. Our laws tend to be similar which makes cooperation easier,” said South African Competition Commissioner Tembinkosi Bonakele.

Namibian Competition Commission Chief Executive Officer, Mr Mihe Gaomab said that the signing of the MoU is a historic moment for them, and that this will improve cooperation between the authorities, especially on multi-jurisdiction projects, such as mergers.

Bonakele advocates regulation in lieu of antitrust enforcement

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South African Competition Commissioner quoted as preferring legislative action rather than Commission action

In a BD Live article from today (“Competition policy ‘not best way to plug industrial loopholes’”), Linda Ensor reports on a presentation Tembinkosi Bonakele made to Parliament’s trade and industry portfolio committee.  In it, the head of the Competition Commission (“Commission”) remarked, according to the article, that “the application of competition law by the competition authorities was a slow process that should not be used to address loopholes in the implementation of industrial policy.”  Mr. Bonakele is quoted as noting that the “litigious nature of using competition policy as a mechanism to reduce prices was a ‘delayed remedy to the market’.”

The Acting Commissioner

At issue, in part, are the price levels of South Africa’s natural-resource sector, including a reference by Mr. Bonakele to “a loophole” in industrial policy and regulation, i.e., the Commission’s long-running investigation of alleged excessive pricing by Sasol Chemical Industries, which lasted about seven years prior to a ruling by the Competition Tribunal, in which Sasol was found guilty of excessive pricing of propylene and polypropylene products, fining it R534m.

Mr. Bonakele’s key suggestion was that there are alternative means for the government to intervene, e.g., through regulation.

 

New Competition Commissioner not so new: Bonakele retains top job

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Interim South African Acting Competition Commissioner Tembinkosi Bonakele confirmed in permanent post by minister who unceremoniously fired predecessor Ramburuth

Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose…

This morning, economic-development minister Ebrahim Patel announced the retention of the 38 year-old Mr. Bonakele as the top antitrust enforcer in the South African republic, making permanent for a five-year term the interim appointment of the man who said the following in an interview regarding the independence of the competition authorities in South Africa:

While competition authorities should not be beholden to the government neither can they be loose cannons who claim independence without accountability.”

In prolonging Mr. Bonakele’s interim appointment for another five years, Minister Patel thus assured that the important position of Competition Commissioner did not go to a “loose cannon”…

Legislative basis

The appointment is made pursuant to Part A, Art. 22 of the South African Competition Act of 1999, as amended, which also provides (in sub section 4) for the flexible salary and benefits determination to be made by the minister himself: “The Minister must, in consultation with the Minister of Finance, determine the Commissioner’s remuneration, allowances, benefits, and other terms and conditions of employment

Minister Patel

Commissioner Bonakele

Public announcement and emphasis on enforcement

In the duo’s official tweets announcing the decision (see graphic extract below), Patel congratulated Mr. Bonakele, reaffirming his and the SA cabinet’s support of the “eminently suitable” candidate, and emphasizing the importance of (1) the Competition Commission‘s ongoing and hotly debated private health-care inquiry as well as (2) the “social-justice” elements of merger conditions imposed by the SACC on mergers in the past 5 years, purportedly “protecting” 4,900 jobs.

The agency had come under considerable flak in the past year due to its high staff and executive-level turnover and a work environment that has been described as “toxic” by insiders.

The official release by the Ministry of Economic Development quotes Patel as follows:

“I am pleased to have someone of Bonakele’s calibre at the helm of the Competition Commission. He is taking leadership of the Commission at a time when the South African economy needs to become more competitive and create many more decent work opportunities by combatting market abuse such as cartels and pervasive monopolies and ensure competitive pricing of products. In particular, the key jobs drivers identified in our policy frameworks require coordinated and concerted efforts improve economic performance and development outcomes.
“The Competition Commission has been one of a number of successful economic agencies and regulators that are together beginning to transform the South African economy. Mr Bonakele possesses the skills and experience to build on the successes of the Competition Commission.”

The agency’s official “Structure” page had not yet been updated as of the day of the announcement, listing Mr. Bonakele as “Acting” head and still showing the long-departed Ms. Makhaya as a Commission official.

Official S.A. government tweets announcing SACC personnel decision of permanent Bonakele appointment

Commissioner calls agency’s work “reactive”, will appeal SABMiller case, counters “toothless dog” moniker

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Revelations from Bonakele’s interview with CNBC Africa

South African interim Competition Commissioner Tembinkosi Bonakele called his agency, the Competition Commission (“Commission”), a “kind of reactive” enforcement body, aiming primarily to uncover cartel conduct.  In an interview with CNBC Africa‘s “Beyond Markets” segment, journalist Nozipho Mbanjwa asked the acting Commissioner tough questions on the Commission’s enforcement tactics, legislative mandate, fines imposed, the adequacy of the Commission’s capitalization, and whether the South African antitrust watchdog was, in fact, a “toothless dog.”

Bonakele held his ground, referring multiple times to the Commission’s recent successes, including the construction cartel, the bread case, cooking oils, and other “basic products” matters on which he said his agency would place the largest focus going forward.

The Acting Commissioner

The Acting Commissioner

Some of the highlights from the interview:

  • Bonakele is “quite satisfied” with the agency’s funding and performance of its 180 staff, but may ask for “more funding” specifically for the Commission’s sectoral health-care inquiry.
  • The Commission will focus its cartel-busting efforts on sectors in the basic products category such as foods and health-care.
  • The Commission will “definitely appeal” its loss of the SABMiller abuse-of-dominance matter, a “very tricky kind of offence in terms of competition law” according to Bonakele.  He said he did “not like” the 7-year long duration of the SABMiller saga, but felt compelled to extend the matter by bringing the case before the Competition Appeal Court.
  • “No comment” on the “classic” Unilever investigation.
  • On the much-maligned MultiChoice broadcaster, Bonakele called the company a “monopoly created by legislation” in a regulated market, and deferred to parliament to rectify the situation.
  • The Commission receives approximately 30% of its funds from revenues that are the result of merger filing fees.