Sekunjalo braced for hefty fine as pricing probe moves ahead

16 February 2014 - 12:01
By Bobby Jordan
UNDER FIRE: Dr Iqbal Survé, chief executive officer of Sekunjalo Investments
Image: Picture: TERRY SHEAN UNDER FIRE: Dr Iqbal Survé, chief executive officer of Sekunjalo Investments

The empowerment company in the spotlight in an R800-million government tender probe is in trouble again - this time for alleged price-fixing in the fishing industry.

Sekunjalo Investments, which owns Premier Fishing, could face a multimillion-rand fine from the Competition Commission following claims of price collusion involving Premier and several other companies.

Commission spokesman Themba Mathebula confirmed this week that the case against Premier was being referred to the Competition Commission tribunal for final adjudication.

"The case is now at our legal services department and they are finalising the referral process," said Mathebula.

The move follows a complaint lodged almost six years ago against big fishing companies, claiming they were colluding to set uniform prices for skippers, crew and private boat owners - in contravention of the Competition Act.

Sekunjalo confirmed the probe this week but declined to divulge further details.

However, in its latest annual report, released late last year, the company makes a financial provision for an "expected penalty" relating to the case.

"The settlement terms are currently being negotiated," the report states. "A provision for the expected penalty has been accounted for during this financial year."

One of the other companies involved, Oceana Fishing, has already paid a R35-million fine stemming from the complaint.

The finalisation of Premier's price-fixing case comes just two months after Sekunjalo featured prominently in a damning public protector report into an R800-million government tender to manage South Africa's fisheries patrol fleet. The Sekunjalo group submitted four separate tender bids, prompting allegations of collusive tendering and/or bid-rigging. This matter is also before the Competition Commission.

Sekunjalo chairman Dr Iqbal Survé has repeatedly denied any wrongdoing in relation to alleged collusion. He has claimed that his company was "vindicated" in the public protector's report, despite unanswered questions about Sekunjalo's four tender bids.

In a statement issued after the public protector report was made public, Sekunjalo CEO Khalid Abdulla said: "The company is pleased that the public protector did not find evidence of collusive tendering, and will deal with the Competition Commission further in this regard.

"The company welcomes its vindication."

At the time, neither Survé nor Abdulla made any mention of the price-fixing case.

Commenting this week, Sekunjalo spokeswoma n Cherie Hendricks dismissed queries about the price-fixing as "yet another attempt by the Sunday Times to smear Sekunjalo's name and besmirch our reputation, as in the past".

"Premier Fishing has always acted with a good governance standard and we do not wish to discuss [sic] with you or any other party. While the matter is with the [Competition] Commission we are dealing with it and will not discuss the matter with you any further.

"We are confident of our position as we have communicated this to the [Competition] Commission," said Hendricks.

Oceana Group CEO Francois Kuttel said this week that the price-fixing related to "open negotiations" for more than four decades with skippers, crew and private owners in the small pelagic fishing industry.

"While it was technically a contravention of the Competition Act, we believe this activity was covered by the exemption relating to collective bargaining," said Kuttel.

"Employees have been made aware of their obligations in terms of infringing the Competition Act and have been sent on extensive training to ensure this type of thing does not happen."

He said Oceana was the only fishing company to date to have paid a fine in relation to the price-fixing practice.