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.