South Africa’s eCommerce giant, Takealot, has found itself in the crosshairs of the Competition Commission as it faces allegations of anti-competitive behavior. The implications of these findings extend beyond the online retail juggernaut to South African consumers and the broader eCommerce sector. The recent release of the Online Intermediation Platforms Market Inquiry Report has cast a shadow over the nation’s digital shopping landscape.
The Competition Commission’s report unequivocally declared Takealot as the dominant force in South Africa’s eCommerce market. Its strong position in providing online marketplace services to sellers gave rise to concerns over anti-competitive practices. The commission contended that some of Takealot’s business strategies were detrimental to smaller businesses and consumers alike, stifling choice and innovation in the South African eCommerce space.
Legal researcher Zakhele Mthembu from the Free Market Foundation raises an alarm, suggesting that the Competition Commission and global antitrust policies have missed a vital element that underpins a free market – the ability to contest within it. Mthembu referred to the commission’s findings as “destructive interference,” forewarning that it would have far-reaching consequences on South Africa’s eCommerce market.
South Africa’s eCommerce sector has been celebrated as one of the largest and most vibrant in the world, showcasing the nation’s capacity to foster thriving digital businesses like Takealot. However, Mthembu believes that the commission’s findings penalize Takealot for its success rather than addressing anti-competitive behavior. He also anticipates that the regulator’s stringent conditions will fundamentally alter the way companies like Takealot conduct their business.
Mthembu pointed out, “That would definitely have an effect on revenue and subsequently a downstream effect on the size of the eCommerce sector, which is one of the few successful South African industries that we still have left given the horrible state of our economy.”
Furthermore, he stressed that these findings would impact the South African economy negatively by creating an environment where success might be penalized by regulators. In his words, “How do you invest in an economy where if you get success by being patronized by customers, you will be punished by regulators?”
Mthembu’s concerns are not isolated. Earlier this year, the South African Reserve Bank also called on regulators to avoid over-regulating prices and markets, a stance that Mthembu supports. He asserted that more regulations result in higher compliance costs for companies, and these costs are often transferred to consumers. This situation is particularly critical given the surge in inflation not seen in decades.
He emphasized, “We are experiencing inflation that hasn’t been seen in decades, so if the government can do something to try and offset any potential rise in prices, it should. The government should reduce the amount of regulations that it has on businesses because that will have a direct downstream effect on those costs for complying with those regulations being passed down to consumers.”
Mthembu also sounded a warning about the dangers of non-market entities regulating prices, a situation that could lead to shortages, as exemplified by Eskom’s regulated electricity prices. Prices serve as signals to the market, and any external interference in this process can lead to distortions, causing more significant problems down the line.
The prevailing antitrust or competition law mindset, according to Mthembu, often labels companies as dominant and accuses them of abusing their power when they grow from small beginnings due to consumer patronage. This viewpoint is not limited to eCommerce but extends across sectors scrutinized by the Competition Commission.
In an era when global competitors like Amazon and Shein have entered the South African market, Mthembu finds it concerning that local regulators appear to be undercutting their own homegrown success stories like Takealot. Instead of removing barriers to facilitate their growth, regulators seem to be creating obstacles.
As the debate continues, the future of Takealot and South Africa’s eCommerce industry hangs in the balance, with regulatory actions shaping the path forward. Balancing competition and success while nurturing a thriving digital marketplace is a challenging task, and the outcome will undoubtedly influence the future of online retail and consumer choice in South Africa.