South African Market Inquiries: What Lies Ahead and is it Justified?

By Michael-James Currie

The South African Competition Commission (SACC) recently announced that it will be conducting market inquiries into both the Public Passenger Transport sector (Transport Inquiry) as well as investigate the high costs of Data (Data Inquiry).

These inquiries are in addition to the SACC’s market inquiries into the private healthcare sector and grocery retail sector (which are still on-going) and the recently concluded LPG market inquiry.

There are mixed feelings about the benefits of market inquiries in South Africa. Market inquiries are extremely resource intensive (both from the SACC’s perspective as well as for the key participants in the inquiry) and the outcomes of the inquiries which have been concluded (including the informal inquiry in the banking sector) are lukewarm at best. There is little evidence available which suggests that the resources incurred in conducting market inquiries in South Africa are proportional to the perceived or intended pro-competitive outcomes.

Leaving aside this debate for now, the SACC’s most recent market inquiries are particularly interesting for a variety of additional reasons.

Firstly, in relation to the Transport Inquiry, the Terms of Reference (ToR) set out the objectives and the key focus areas of the inquiry. In this regard, the ToR indicate that pricing regulation is one of the key factors which allegedly creates an uneven playing field between metered taxis for example and app-based taxi services such as Uber.

It should be noted that the metered taxi association of South Africa had previously and unsuccessfully submitted a complaint to the SACC against Uber for alleged abuse of dominance. The success of Uber in South Africa has widely been regarded as pro-competitive.

Both prior and subsequent to the complaint against Uber, however, an overwhelming number of metered taxi drivers (both legal and illegal) have resorted to deliberate violent tactics in order to preclude Uber drivers from operating in key areas (i.e. at train stations). In fear of having themselves, their passengers and their vehicles harmed, many Uber drivers oblige. It would be most interesting to see how the SACC tackles this most egregious forms of cartel conduct, namely market allocation (albeit entered into under duress).

Over and above the ‘metered taxi v Uber’ debate, there are additional issues which the Transport Inquiry will focus on – including alleged excessive pricing on certain bus routes, regulated route allocation and ethnic transformation within the industry.

What will likely become a topic (directly or indirectly) during the Transport Inquiry are the allegations, as African Antitrust (AAT) had previously reported, that ‘the “taxi and bus” industry is riddled with collusive behaviour. In light of the fact that most of South Africa’s indigent are fully dependent on taxis for transportation in South Africa and spend a significant portion of their disposal income on taxi fees, this is an issue which needs to be addressed urgently by the competition agencies by acting “without fear, favour or prejudice”’.

In this regard, the ToR indicates that “between 70% and 80% of the South African population is dependent on public passenger transport for its mobility”. The majority of these individuals would make use of ‘minibus taxis’.

The Transport Inquiry ToR do not mention this seemingly most blatant violation of competition law principles and it remains to be seen to what extent the SACC’s is prepared to investigate and assess hardcore collusion in the industry.

In relation to the second market inquiry, the SACC will also conduct an inquiry in relation to the high data costs in South Africa.

The High costs of data in South Africa seems to be key issue from the government’s perspective and the Minister of Economic Development, Mr Ebrahim Patel called for the SACC to conduct an inquiry into this sector. Further, the high costs of data in South Africa seems so important to economic growth and development that the Minister of Finance, Mr Malusi Gigaba, not only echoed Minister Patel’s calls for a market inquiry into high data costs, but identified such a market inquiry as part of his ‘14 point action plan’ to revive the South African economy.

Given that the three formal market inquiries which the SACC has commenced with to date have, only one (the LPG inquiry) has been finalized. Even the LPG inquiry took nearly three years to conclude. The private healthcare inquiry and the grocery retail inquiry which commenced in 2014 and 2015 respectively, still seem someway off from reaching any finality.

The length of time taken to conclude a market inquiry is, however, not the end of the matter from a timeline perspective. Following a market inquiry, recommendations must be made to Parliament. These recommendations may include legislative reforms or other remedies to address identified concerns with the structure of the market. Parliament may or may not adopt these recommended proposal.

Accordingly, it seems unlikely that from the date a market inquiry commences, that there will be any pro-competitive gains to the market within 5-7 years. That is assuming that the market presents anti-competitive features which can be remedies through legislative reform

While there appears to be consensus among most that data costs in South Africa are disproportionately high when compared to a number of other developing economies, the positive results envisaged to flow from a market inquiry is not only difficult to quantify, but will only be felt, if at all, a number of years down the line. Hardly a first step to revive the economy on a medium term outlook (let alone the short term).

Furthermore, and entwined with the SACC’s market inquiry into Data Costs, is that the Independent Communications Authority of South Africa (“ICASA”) decided to also conduct a market inquiry into the telecommunications sector, which includes focusing on the high costs of data.  ICASA has indicated that it will liaise with other regulatory bodies including the SACC.

It is not clear what level of collaboration will exist between the SACC and ICASA although one would hope that due to the resource intensive nature of market inquiries, there is minimal duplication between the two agencies – particularly as their objectives would appear identical.

As a concluding remark, absent evidence which convincingly supports the beneficial outcomes of market inquiries in South Africa, perhaps a key priority for the authorities is to conclude the current inquiries as expeditiously as possible and conduct an assessment of the benefits of market inquiries (particularly in the manner in which they are presently being conducted), before initiating a number of additional market inquiries.

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.

SACC Investigates Port Operator for Monopolisation & Excessive Pricing

Abuse of Dominance & Excessive Pricing in South Africa: Transnet under Unvestigation

south_africaBy AAT Senior Contributor, Michael-James Currie.

On 7 July 2016, the South African Competition Commission (SACC) announced that it has initiated an investigation against Transnet SOC Ltd (Transnet), for abusing its dominance by allegedly engaging in excessive pricing in contravention of the in section 8(a) of the Competition Act as well as for engaging in exclusionary practices in contravention of section 8(c) of the Competition Act in relation to the provision of port services.

The SACC investigation is allegedly based on information received indicating that South Africa’s port charges are excessive relative to global standards. A recent port tariff benchmarking report by the regulator determined that Transnet’s terminal handling charges for the period 2015-2016 were 56% above the global average. Transnet maintains that it is “comfortable and confident that its processes are fair, just, and in line with relevant legal requirements.

The SACC also indicated that it had received information indicating that Transnet is allegedly giving preferential treatment to certain customers to the exclusion of others, in the form of preferential berthing windows, capped export capacity, minimum export tonnage requirements and preferential lease agreements.

Patel talksThe SACC, as well as the Minister of Economic Development, Mr Patel, as expressly stated that, as part of the SACC’s policy, it will target firms who may be abusing their dominance in the market.

While most respondents in South Africa’s abuse of dominant cases thus far, have been firms who have previously been state owned and, therefore, as far as the SACC is concerned, obtained their significant market share as a result of previously having received state support.  It is thus noteworthy that Transnet is a ‘State Owned Entity’.

Despite having brought a number of abuse of dominance cases against various respondents, however, the SACC has found prosecuting respondents for abusing their dominance challenging.

In relation to excessive pricing, the SACC has found it particularly challenging to successfully prosecute a firm for a contravening section 8(a) of the Competition Act. This is largely due to the definition of ‘excessive pricing’ which is essentially defined in the Competition Act as “a price for a good or service which bears no reasonable relation to the economic value of the good or service”.

What constitutes an ‘excessive price’ was fully dealt with in the recent Sasol Polymers case in which the South African Competition Appeal Court (CAC) overturned a R500 million rand penalty imposed on Sasol by the Competition Tribunal for excessive pricing.

Although the outcome of the Sasol case before the CAC turn largely on a lack of evidence, the case highlighted the difficulties in determining what the ‘economic value’ of a product is. In this regard, however, and as a general starting point, the CAC indicated that the economic value “is the notional price of the respective “good” or “service” under assumed conditions of long-run competitive equilibrium”.

If the price charged for a product exceeds the ‘economic value’, then the inquiry shifts to the second part of the definition – i.e. whether the price charged is reasonably related to the ‘economic value’. Although the CAC in Sasol indicated that this is a subjective inquiry, the CAC indicated that in instances where the actual price charged is not more than 20% of the economic value, it is unlikely that the price charged will be considered ‘unreasonable’.

John Oxenham and the author co-published a paper on excessive pricing, which was presented at the American Bar Association Fall Forum in 2015, providing a comprehensive evaluation of the Sasol case and the legal landscape of excessive pricing in South Africa.

After the Sasol case, Minister Patel has further expressed his intentions to broaden and strengthen the SACC’s powers to prosecute firms who abuse their dominance.

In this regard, Minister Patel had previously made similar averments in relation to combatting cartel conduct, which ultimately materialized in the Minister bring into effect criminal liability for directors or persons with management authority who have engaged in cartel conduct. The criminal liability provisions were enacted in 2009, but were not brought into effect due to numerous concerns regarding the constitutionality and jurisdictional concerns regarding the enforcement of these provisions. Despite the concerns raised, the criminal liability provisions were nevertheless brought into effect from 1 May 2016 without any amendments having been made.

The significance of the Minister Patel’s decision to implement criminal liability provisions should be particularly concerning to firms to have a substantial market share, as the Minister has also indicated that he intends bring into effect the “complex monopoly” provisions as contained din the Competition Amendment Act.

Much like the criminal-liability provisions, the complex-monopoly provisions have also been enacted since 2009, but not brought into effect yet due to various concerns raised as to the how this provision would be enforced.

In terms of the complex monopoly provisions, where five or less firms have 75% market share in the same market, a firm could be found to have engaged in prohibited conduct if any two or more of those firms collectively act in a parallel manner which has the effect of lessening competition in the market (i.e. by creating barriers to entry, charging excessive prices or exclusive dealing and “other market characteristics which indicate coordinated behavior”).

Although the introduction of complex monopoly provisions may appear far off, we would caution firms who operate in a concentrated market that Minister Patel’s efforts to combat abuse of dominance may see result in the expeditious implementation of the complex-monopoly provisions.

Ph.D. student elevated to Chief Economist position

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High-level appointments made by acting Competition Commissioner

According to statements made by the interim South African Competition Commissioner, Tembinkosi Bonakele, and based on several news reports (here and here, for instance), the SACC has filled several of its recently (or not-so-recently) emptied ranks:

  1. Chief Economist and Manager of the Policy and Research division: Liberty Mncube
  2. Divisional Manager of Enforcement and Exemptions: Junior Khumalo
  3. Chief Financial Officer: Thomas Kgokolo

The appointments were made effective as of the first of the year.  The SACC had been criticised for lack of stability in its leadership and overall staff, given a fairly high turnover rate among its employees and officers.  Perhaps to counter this impression, Mr. Bonakele said in the official SACC statement that the “new appointees will provide the necessary leadership to their very important divisions. It is important that we have a very strong and stable senior management team and I have full confidence that this team will take the Commission to higher levels. We are privileged as an institution that we are able to find most candidates internally and thereby ensure continuity.”  (Emphasis added).

Focusing on the first new appointment to the Chief Economist role – a position that has sat empty for over a year, according to our recollection – it not only provides for a catchy title but is indeed a noteworthy fact that Mr. Mncube is a graduate student at the moment We do not know of any other competition enforcement agency that has filled the job of chief economist with someone who is currently pursuing a degree in economics.  This comment is not to diminish Mr. Mncube’s accomplishments, nor to take away from his potential to fill the role adequately.  It simply states a fact.  His past professional biography includes the following, according to a 2011 ICN The Hague conference web site:

[Note: information as of 2011] “Liberty Mncube is a Senior Analyst in the Policy and Research Division of the Competition Commission of South Africa. At the Commission, his responsibilities include managing and coordinating research and policy development; managing and coordinating case analysis; contributing in building capacity for research and knowledge of competition policy; and undertaking analysis related to competition matters with regard to policy and regulation. Prior to joining the Commission, he was a Researcher at the Development Policy Research Unit at the University of Cape Town. Liberty holds an MSc in Economics from the University of York.”

Mr. Mncube’s own LinkedIn profile is updated to reflect his current position:

I am the Chief Economist at the Competition Commission South Africa. I hold a MSc in Economics from the University of York and am currently completing a PhD in Economics at the University of KwaZulu-Natal. I have been a visiting PhD graduate student at the Barcelona Graduate School of Economics.

For the economists among our readership, here are a few selected publications by Mr. Mncube (note that his LinkedIn profile lists several additional articles and book chapters): “On merger simulation and its potential role in South African merger control“; “Strategic Entry Deterrence: Pioneer Foods And The Bread Cartel“; and “Designing Appropriate Remedies For Competition Law Enforcement: The Pioneer Foods Settlement Agreement

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”.