BIL­LION DOL­LAR BABY

When Vo­da­com ripped off a staff mem­ber’s idea, he de­cided to give real mean­ing to ‘Power to You’

CityPress - - Front Page - by Zinhle Ma­pumulo

Nkosana Makate re­sponded to City Press this week only af­ter we had sent him a mes­sage say­ing Please Call Me. His phone rang unan­swered, and leav­ing a voice mes­sage didn’t help ei­ther. He could not an­swer the over­whelm­ing num­ber of calls from around the world.

Our tele­phonic in­ter­view with Makate (39), on Thurs­day af­ter­noon, was short but rich in de­tail. He got straight to the point. “I am re­lieved that it has fi­nally ended. “To tell you the truth, it hasn’t sunk in that I have won this long le­gal bat­tle.”

Makate, a di­rec­tor of fi­nance con­trol at the SA Lo­cal Gov­ern­ment As­so­ci­a­tion, dared to do what others only dream of: he took on one of the big­gest net­work op­er­a­tors in South Africa af­ter it re­fused to com­pen­sate him for inventing the Please Call Me con­cept.

It has earned bil­lions of rands for Vo­da­com in 15 years.

In the year 2000, Makate was a trainee ac­coun­tant at Vo­da­com. His girl­friend, now his wife, Re­becca Makate, was a BSc stu­dent at the Uni­ver­sity of Fort Hare in the East­ern Cape. She would of­ten buzz him when she wanted to talk but had no air­time. Some­times she didn’t have enough air­time to even buzz.

Makate says this both­ered him, and his state of des­per­a­tion prompted the idea of a free ser­vice that en­ables a user with­out air­time to send a text re­quest­ing the re­cip­i­ent to call back. He knew noth­ing about soft­ware, so he took the idea to the then prod­uct de­vel­op­ment man­ager, Phillip Geissler.

Geissler was im­pressed and the idea was cap­tured in a pro­posal and con­cept doc­u­ment. An agree­ment was reached be­tween Makate and Geissler that he would be paid a 15% share of the rev­enue gen­er­ated by Vo­da­com if the in­no­va­tion was tech­ni­cally and fi­nan­cially vi­able.

But when the idea started gen­er­at­ing money, Vo­da­com dis­avowed the agree­ment.

The tele­coms gi­ant said that Geissler had no au­thor­ity to en­ter into agree­ments with staff.

Makate left Vo­da­com in 2003 hav­ing ex­hausted all hope of be­ing com­pen­sated for his in­no­va­tion. He knocked from door-todoor, ask­ing lawyers to take his case but none was pre­pared to help him take on Vo­da­com.

“There were times when I wanted to give up, but my faith kept me go­ing. I be­lieved that an in­jus­tice was done to me.”

In 2008 Makate found at­tor­neys that were brave enough to take Vo­da­com to court.

“It wasn’t only about money ... There were more im­por­tant prin­ci­ples that needed to be cor­rected, and jus­tice was the key fac­tor.”

For eight years, Makate fought Vo­da­com. The case made it to the South Gaut­eng High Court in 2014.

But his hopes were dashed when the court con­firmed that Geissler had no au­thor­ity to of­fer Makate com­pen­sa­tion. Not sat­is­fied with the out­come, Makate sol­diered on.

Fi­nally, on Tuesday, the Con­sti­tu­tional Court de­liv­ered jus­tice.

Hand­ing down judg­ment, Jus­tice Chris Jafta lambasted Vo­da­com.

“The ser­vice had be­come so pop­u­lar and prof­itable that rev­enue in huge sums of money was gen­er­ated for Vo­da­com to smile all the way to the bank. Yet it did not com­pen­sate the ap­pli­cant even with a penny for his idea.”

Jafta also said Vo­da­com’s then CEO, Alan Knott-Craig, was a liar to have in­sisted that the Please Call Me con­cept was his in­ven­tion.

He had the au­dac­ity, too, to claim the in­ven­tion as his own in his 2009 au­to­bi­og­ra­phy, Se­cond Is Noth­ing.

He lied when he said the idea had popped into his mind while he was ob­serv­ing two se­cu­rity guards try­ing to call each other with­out air­time. De­spite Knott-Craig’s claims, Makate says he does not bear a grudge.

“Fifteen years is a long time to har­bour grudges. I have put the in­ci­dent be­hind me.

“I have never spo­ken to him, not since this court bat­tle be­gan.

“I am told I am the last per­son he would want to speak to, which is sur­pris­ing be­cause, for me, the past is just that.”

Now, the big­gest ques­tion is: How much will Vo­da­com pay Makate af­ter the court or­dered that the tele­coms gi­ant ne­go­ti­ate with him “in good faith” to de­ter­mine a rea­son­able com­pen­sa­tion for his Please Call Me in­no­va­tion?

Even the man of the mo­ment has no idea how much he stands to pocket, “but my pro­posal was 15% of the rev­enue gen­er­ated by the con­cept”.

A R70 bil­lion fig­ure is be­ing bandied about as the rev­enue gen­er­ated by Vo­da­com since the Please Call Me con­cept went live sev­eral years ago.

If that fig­ure is cor­rect, Makate could be enor­mously rich within the next 30 days, the pe­riod set down by the court for com­pen­sa­tion ne­go­ti­a­tions to be fi­nalised.

As he waits for the ne­go­ti­a­tions to com­mence, Makate says he has not de­cided what he will do with the money.

He doesn’t know whether he will leave his job af­ter the com­pen­sa­tion cash is de­posited into his ac­count.

What he does know is that he has some­thing else to look for­ward to at the end of the year.

A book about his drawn-out le­gal bat­tle and his sub­se­quent vic­tory in the high­est court in the land is ex­pected to hit the book­shelves in De­cem­ber.

It will make riv­et­ing hol­i­day read­ing for Alan Knott-Craig.

PHOTO: WALDO SWIEGERS / SUN­DAY TIMES

MON­EY­BAGS Nkosana Makate is set to be­come a bil­lion­aire thanks to a court rul­ing on his in­ven­tion, the Please Call Me ser­vice, which Vo­da­com tried to claim was a for­mer CEO’s idea

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