Beyond the DOJ: Criminal liability for cartel conduct in Africa

South Africa: Driving Force behind Enforcement of Criminal Sanctions for Cartelists?

By AAT Senior Contributor, Michael-James Currie

In May 2016, precisely a year ago, criminal liability for directors or persons with management authority who cause a firm to engage in cartel conduct was introduced in South Africa by way of amendments to the Competition Act.

The introduction of criminal liability caught most of the South African competition law community off-guard, including the competition authorities, despite the relevant legislative provisions having been drafted and presented to Parliament for approval in 2009.

A major reason why there was such a delay in the enactment of the relevant legislation were concerns raised about the practicality and legality in enforcing the criminal liability provisions, at least in the manner currently drafted. These concerns, however, were never addressed and the Minister of Economic Development, Minister Patel, proceeded to bring into effect the criminalising provisions. The Minister has openly taken a view that current administrative penalties, which to date have been the most prominent form of sanctions imposed on firms for engaging in cartel conduct, do not provide a sufficient deterrent.

Criminal sanctions are, however, by nature a rather retributive liability, and there have been limited instances in which firms that have previously found to have contravened the Competition Act are repeat offenders. Administrative penalties coupled with reputational damage would appear to be a substantial deterrent.

Regardless, the sentiments of Minister Patel were recently echoed by the head of the National Prosecuting Authority, Shaun Abrahams, who recently indicated that anti-corruption task team (ACTT) has been briefed to treat ‘collusion’ in the same vein as corruption. The ACTT was formulated in 2010 to target high profile cases of corruption.

While it is understood that the Competition Commission (SACC) and the National Prosecuting Authority (NPA) having been working on a memorandum of understanding between the two enforcement agencies for over a year, it appears that such a MoU is still some way off from being finalised.

It is not yet clear whether the NPA envisages a more active role in cartel investigations with a view to institute criminal proceedings in terms of the Competition Act, or whether Mr Abrahams envisages holding those accountable by other pieces of anti-corruption legislation such as the Prevention and Combatting of Corrupt Activities Act (PACCA).

Mr Abrahams has indicated that he has been trying to set up a meeting with the Commissioner of the South Africa Competition Commission, Tembinkosi Bonakele, in order to discuss recent investigations by the SACC, most notably in the banking sector.

Of particular interest is that the Black Empowerment Forum (BEF) had laid criminal charges at the South African Police against Citibank following Citibank’s R69 million settlement agreement with the SACC. The BEF had indicated that they would write to the President and the NPA in an effort to elevate and expedite this case.

The recent banking referrals have been politically charged with many of the view that there has been political interference in the manner in which the banking investigation has been handled. A number of reports have linked the BEF which was allegedly only established in April 2017, to the President’s son, Edward Zuma.

This does raise queries as to the motivation behind the BEF’s criminal complaint and also whether it was the BEF’s criminal complaint that has sparked Mr Abrahams’ recent comments.

The timing of the BEF criminal complaint and Mr Abrahams’ expressed interest in pursuing cartelists for criminal liability, the allegations of political interference in the banking referrals and the lack of any formal arrangement between the SACC and the NPA regarding the enforcement of the criminal sanctions (as far as we are aware) may all be unrelated issues. This, however, seems doubtful.

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