Battle of the Agencies: ICASA vs. CompCom

In dispute over competition-law & merger enforcement in South Africa, Communications agency raises its voice

Jurisdictionally crossed wires and agency disputes in antitrust are no longer the exclusive playground of the FCC and DOJ, of COMESA’s CCC and the Kenyan CAK, or DOJ and FTC.  They have now reached the shores of the Republic of South Africa as well, in the form of the Independent Communication Authority of South Africa (“ICASA”) challenging the country’s Competition Commission’s de facto exclusive right to review merger deals.

Factual Background

ICASA, created in July 2000 by the Independent Communication Authority of South Africa Amendment Act is reported to be in a jurisdictional dispute with the country’s traditional merger watchdog, the South African Competition Commission (“SACC”).  ICASA wants the power to take a closer look at relevant deals such as MTN and Telkom’s network sharing and the announced Vodacom / Neotel deal, on which AAT has reported previously (see Telecom adversaries to remain “principled” in their competing bids for 4G spectrum, Internet & mobile operators at war: merge, acquire, complain, and our prior reports mentioning ICASA here).

ICASA’s specialized “Markets & Competition” division is tasked to deal with promoting “competition, innovation and investment in respect of services and facilities provided in the electronic communications, broadcasting and postal sectors, whilst ensuring account cultural diversity, especially regarding broadcasting content.”  The authority as a whole is “mandated to create competition in the telecommunications, broadcasting and the postal industries. In turn, competition brings about affordable prices for goods and services rendered and provides value for money to consumers.”

Legal Standard – “Public Interest”?

In recent reports by the New Telegraph and HumanIPO, ICASA is said to have voiced discontent with the Competition Commission’s failure to send proposed communications-related M&A deals to the authority.

That said, it is unclear to AAT precisely which legal standard ICASA wishes to impose on any potential future merger review it might undertake.  In the U.S., notably, the FCC’s standard of review is a more flexible public-interest standard, vs. the “classic” antitrust agencies’ (FTC/DOJ) “substantial lessening of competition” standard.

Regardless of (at least our) uncertainty of the legal standard to be applied, ICASA is quoted as saying that deals cleared by the SACC may still require separate approval from the Communications authority, irrespective of any competition-law based decision reached by the Competition Commission:

“While consolidation is a global phenomenon and anticipated in the market, all such deals may require regulatory approval.”

“The authority is aware of what is currently before the Competition Commission; and in accordance with our institutional arrangements with the Competition Commission we will collaborate, however, that in no way negates the regulatory approvals required from ICASA.”

In addition to the previous lack of coordination between the Commission and ICASA on merger reviews, there has also been criticism of the country’s limited allocation of more frequency spectrum to wireless operators.

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Competition Authority of Kenya wrests right to control M&A from COMESA.

(See also our prior reporting here: https://africanantitrust.com/2013/01/31/kenyan-competition-authoritys-comesa-jurisdiction-questions/)

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The Competition Authority of Kenya (“CAK”) has won the first round in its apparent jurisdictional battle against COMESA to control acquisition of shares, interest or assets among local firms, ending two months of uncertainty as to who the regulatory authority was for dealmakers. Kenyan Attorney General Githu Muigai has given the CAK the authority to act as the sole agency with the mandate to administer and clear local Kenyan mergers and acquisitions.

This power purports to shield, at least temporarily, local firms from the COMESA competition laws. Under the multi-state competition regime, firms engaging in certain mergers and acquisitions with an effect in two or more member states are required to seek clearance from COMESA’s Competition Commission, a process that comes with significant costs and time delays not expected to the same extent with the CAK procedure.

Family feud: Which S.A. agency gets the first bite at the apple?

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Why is the South African government flexing its anti-fraud and corruption laws in the long-running investigation of potential bid-rigging in the construction sector, when it could perhaps more straightforwardly apply its competition law — and only that — to the alleged offences?  In its role as the antitrust watchdog, the SA Competition Commission has been attempting to induce guilty co-conspirators to seek leniency or corporate immunity from prosecution for cartel offences under the country’s Competition Act in exchange for information on rigged bids for construction projects.

Corporate leniency is one thing — personal liability for fraud or other racketeering charges is quite another…  Individual employees or directors of the leniency applicants should beware the double jeopardy they are exposed to, personally, when their employers ink settlements with the CC: The National Prosecuting Authority is not using the country’s civil-offence based competition law to pursue the alleged wrongdoing, even though the accusations raised by them would fall rather neatly within the category of prohibited horizontal agreements among competitors (i.e., cartel conduct).  Rather, the prosecution is applying the Prevention and Combating of Corrupt Activities Act, which — unlike the Competition Act — criminalises the illicit behaviour that allegedly took place.

On the policy side, had the as-of-yet dormant Competition Amendment Act 2009 come into force and the competition law therefore criminalisation “teeth”, we here at AfricanAntitrust.com are wondering whether we’d be seeing parallel, ongoing dual-agency investigations on a scale such as this — or rather an initial battle for jurisdiction between the CC and the NPA’s Hawks?  The S.A. family feud between the twin siblings, fraud laws and antitrust? The purely legal question of “double jeopardy”, raised above, would doubtless also figure in the debate who gets to enforce which law(s).  One of the CC’s public-relations managers, Trudi Makhaya, recently hinted at the potential for greater enforcement powers of the Competition Commission, mentioning the “pending amendments to the Competition Act”. For now, the so-called Construction Fast Track Settlement Project will have to keep churning out non-criminal settlements with offenders.

This specific post will serve as a lead-up into the broader arena of criminalisation of antitrust law, which we will cover soon in its own category.  It brings with it fascinating questions beyond those raised here (including, for instance, the potential for dis-incentives to corporate executives to seek leniency).

As always, we welcome your opinion — this is a question that will sooner or later have to be answered.