Robben Island price fixing case against ferry operators dismissed

The Competition Tribunal has dismissed a case of alleged price fixing and collusive tendering by two ferry boat operators transporting passengers to Robben Island and surrounding tourist areas.

The Tribunal on Wednesday issued a statement on the matter, which dates back to a complaint lodged by the Robben Island Museum with the Competition Commission in June 2016.

The Museum had issued a tender for bidders (the ferry boat operators) to be listed on its database as preferred service providers for a 12-month period. The complaint implicated five companies, ferrying passengers between Robben Island and the V&A Waterfront tourist attractions in Cape Town.

The Commission then proceeded to investigate the complaint.

"The Commission claimed that the companies had met at the Cape Town Fish Market Coffee Shop around 22 September 2015, where they discussed and agreed to increase the prices they would charge when responding to the tender," the statement said.

It went on to say that following the meeting, Thembekile and Nauticat Charters increased their prices to R18 000 per trip for 140 passengers. Ferry Charters did not alter its price as it was already charging R18 000 per trip for 140 passengers and this resulted in all three quoting the same price. 

"Silverbuckle increased its price per trip from R7750 to R8775 for a 65-passenger vessel while Heritage Charters raised its price per trip from R11 500 to R12 650 for its 65-passenger vessel," the statement said.

The Commission, however, reached settlements with three of the ferry boat operators in June 2018. At the time, the Competition Tribunal confirmed these settlement agreements with Thembekile Maritime Service paying a penalty of R350 000.00; Silverbuckle paying a penalty of R249 171.72; and Nauticat Charters paying a penalty of R422 087.87.

The two remaining companies - Ferry Charters and Heritage Charters – denied the allegations and contended that the Commission had no case against them.

"They asked for the matter to be dismissed. Ferry Charters argued that it did not increase its prices as alleged by the Commission simply because it had been charging the same price of R18 000 for the past four years. The price charged by Ferry Charters was generally known in the industry.  

"Heritage Charters's defence was that prior to the tender it was in negotiations with Robben Island Museum to increase its price by 10%. The price in the tender reflected the very increase that heritage Charters was seeking at the time and which the Museum had agreed to," the statement read.

The Tribunal dismissed the case on the grounds that evidence presented before it did not allow it to draw the inference suggested by the Commission.

"The Commission bears the onus to show that the respondents colluded as alleged at the coffee shop meeting of 22 September 2015 to increase prices for the RIM (Robben Island Museum)," an excerpt from the Tribunal's order read. "We find that the Commission has not discharged its onus."

The Tribunal added that the Commission failed to show the existence of an agreement or concerted practice on the part of the respondents in contravention of the Competition Act.