“In the past these cases took three to eight years to complete, so the fact that we have been able to finalise these quite quickly is quite an achievement,” said litigation manager Candice Slump.
“Competition authorities around the world have noted the need for a swift response in these cases so we aim to refer cases [to the tribunal] within 10 days, which is very little time when dealing with complex issues.”
In the 20 years before the pandemic, the commission had only brought two price-gouging cases against companies, and lost both.
The pandemic was a steep learning curve for the commission, Slump said, with mistakes made and corrected.
Price-gouging regulations applying to basic food and consumer items, and hygiene supplies such as hand sanitiser, bleach, masks and gloves were implemented in March 2020, restricting companies to a maximum 10% increase in their profit margin for as long as the Disaster Management Act remains in effect.
Price gouging refers to cases where prices have increased without a rise in input costs (from the supplier) and where net price markups have increased during a crisis.
In the Dis-Chem matter – in which the retailer was found guilty of increasing the price of surgical masks by 317%, and paid an administrative penalty of R1.2m – the tribunal was very clear about its stance on price gouging: “Massive price increases of surgical masks ... which constitute an essential component of life-saving first line protection in a pandemic of seismic proportions, without any significant increases in costs, are utterly unreasonable and reprehensible.”