South African Competition Tribunal Rules against Wal-Mart in South Africa on “Exclusive Leases”

By Michael-James Currie

On 13 February 2018, the South African Competition Tribunal ruled against Massmart Holdings, a subsidiary of Wal-Mart in relation to a complaint filed by Massmart against three of South Africa’s largest grocery retailers (as well as the South African Property Owners Association – who did not actively participate in the hearing).

The history of the complaint dates back to 2014, when Massmart submitted a complaint to the Competition Commission alleging that the exclusive lease agreements which the respondents had concluded with the relevant landlords in respect of shopping malls were exclusionary and contravened the South African Competition Act. The Competition Commission elected not to refer the matter to the Competition Tribunal and dismissed Massmart’s complaint based on a lack of evidence demonstrating any anti-competitive effects.

Massmart proceeded to refer the complaint itself to the Competition Tribunal in 2015 (which is permissible only if the Competition Commission elects not to refer the matter to the Tribunal) on the basis that the respondents had contravened Section 5(1) of the Competition Act — which prohibits any vertical arrangement which has anti-competitive effects and which cannot be outweighed by pro-competitive efficiency enhancing justifications.

Massmart’s case against the respondents was essentially that the respondent retailers had entered into long term lease agreements with landlords of various shopping centres which contained exclusivity provisions effectively precluding (or limiting) competing retailers from entering that same shopping centre.  In other words, the crux of Massmart’s complaint was that Massmart could not enter into a number of shopping centres in a manner which would enable Massmart to compete with the incumbent retailers.

Although the respondents raised a number of exceptions to the Massmart complaint (including the “non-citation” of the relevant landlords who are parties to the respective lease agreements), the Tribunal did not need to rule on these exceptions. The Tribunal dismissed the complaint on the basis that Massmart did not prove that the exclusivity provisions contained in the lease agreements resulted in anti-competitive effects in the relevant market.

In conducting its assessment, the Tribunal considered whether the “exclusive leases” are likely to either:

  1. have an adverse impact on consumer welfare; or
  2. lead to the foreclosure of a rival in the market.

Central to the Tribunal’s assessment was the appropriate definition of the “relevant market”. In this regard, the Tribunal found that Massmart had not properly demonstrated that each shopping mall constituted a separate geographic market.

Assuming that the relevant geographic market is the boundaries of a shopping mall,  the Tribunal went on to state that Massmart’s complaint was not supported by sufficient evidence to demonstrate that there would be a “substantial lessening of competition” in that market. In this regard, the Tribunal confirmed that the mere exclusion of a rival does not equate to a “substantial lessening of competition” – particularly if there is at least one other competitor in the relevant market – which based on the evidence appeared to be the case in a number of circumstances.

In relation to an alternative proposition put forward by Massmart, the Tribunal considered whether the “exclusive leases” would lead to anti-competitive effects in the “national market”. Again, the Tribunal found that there was insufficient evidence pleaded to demonstrate that there was a substantial lessening of competition on the national market. Importantly, however, the Tribunal indicated that the respondent retailers appear to impose a competitive constraint on each other in the national market – assuming that there is in fact a competition dimension at a ‘national level’.

The Tribunal’s decision does not therefore go as far as confirming that ‘exclusive leases’ between retailers and shopping malls are inherently pro-competitive, but rather that parties seeking to demonstrate the anti-competitive effects of the ‘exclusivity arrangements’ must do so with credible theories of harm which is supported with the necessary evidence.

The Tribunal’s decision comes at an interesting juncture in light of the current market inquiry being conducted by the Competition Commission in the grocery retail sector. One of the key objectives of the market inquiry is to assess the anti-competitive effects of “exclusive leases”. The Competition Commission is scheduled to finalise its market inquiry in 2018 following which the SACC will make recommendations to Parliament to remedy any potential anti-competitive features of South Africa’s grocery retail sector.

In relation to international precedent, the UK’s competition agency adopted a view that “exclusive leases” are not anti-competitive per se but rather that the duration of the exclusivity provisions contained in lease agreements should be curtailed. Accordingly, exclusivity provisions in the UK are limited to five years. The Australian agency (the ACCC), after conducting a public inquiry into various features of the grocery retail sector, concluded that exclusive lease provisions may be justified in ‘developing areas’ but are unlikely to be justified in ‘metropolitan areas’.

Accordingly, it remains to be seen whether the Competition Commission will propose that any remedial action be taken to address exclusive leases agreements in the context of the South African grocery retail sector (following the conclusion of the market inquiry) or whether Massmart (and/or other complainants) will look to reformulate a complaint to the Tribunal and focus on specific shopping malls as opposed to an overarching complaint against the existence of exclusivity provisions.

Importantly, however, in light of the Tribunal’s finding that Massmart was not able to sufficiently plead and support an argument that the exclusive leases were likely to lead to anti-competitive effect in any defined market, it was unnecessary to consider whether there are any pro-competitive arguments or economic justifications which would outweigh any anti-competitive effects.

[Michael-James Currie is an admitted attorney of the High Court of South Africa and advises clients on competition law matters across sub-Saharan Africa]