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