With Vodacom’s head office in Johannesburg set to be the site of protest action on Thursday by people supporting the operator’s ex-employee, Nkosana Makate, hot-headed politicians, including Gauteng basic education MEC Panyaza Lesufi, would be well advised to avoid inflaming tensions for political gain.
An organisation calling itself the “Please Call Me Movement” intends picketing at Vodacom World, the operator’s flagship retail store on its sprawling office campus in Midrand, on Thursday. Led by Modise Setoaba, the movement wants Vodacom to fork over R70-billion (!) to Makate, who the constitutional court found had invented the “please call me” service while an employee and deserved to be compensated for it.
“Please call me” allows cellular customers to send a free text message requesting a call back from another party. It has generated billions of rand in revenue for Vodacom.
The story by now is well known. Makate, backed by a team of lawyers, pursued Vodacom through the court system, eventually securing a judgment in his favour at the constitutional court. The apex court ruled that the parties had to enter into good-faith negotiations to reach a settlement figure, failing which the Vodacom CEO — currently Shameel Joosub — had to come up with a reasonable level of compensation. Perhaps it was odd to leave the decision up to the Vodacom chief, but that’s what the court decided.
After the talks (probably inevitably) broke down, Joosub tabled a settlement figure — though we don’t know how much it is as both sides have been bound by confidentiality. However, Makate has rejected the offer, calling it “shocking and insulting”. It’s unclear whether he has any further legal recourse, though, and Vodacom appears to have drawn a line in the sand, saying the settlement amount is final.
The irony here is that the “please call me” service was, in fact, patented by Vodacom’s main rival, MTN, after one of MTN’s contractors, Ari Kahn, came up with the idea. TechCentral first reported on this all the way back in 2011. It is quite possible that Makate invented the idea at the same time as Kahn, and completely independently of MTN’s efforts, but the fact remains that it was MTN, and not Vodacom, that patented it.
With just months to go before a national election, politicians have now waded knee-deep into the debate, fanning tensions.
Lesufi has been waging a verbal war on Vodacom in recent weeks, especially on Twitter, prompting Vodacom, through its lawyers, to write a letter to him warning him to back off or face legal action. (Lesufi plans to hold a press conference to discuss the situation on Thursday morning.)
Vodacom’s demands include a written undertaking that Lesufi “desist from making false and defamatory comments” about Vodacom in relation to its litigation with Makate and that he stop saying the company is in “wilful breach of the constitutional court order or that it is acting in an unfair and morally repugnant manner”.
Lesufi must also “desist from calling for and/or inciting the invasion and occupation” of the Vodacom World store or any of its premises “including but not limited to its various stores around the country on 31 January 2019 or any future date”. He was given until 12pm on Wednesday to respond, but made it clear in a tweet that he had little intention of doing so.
In an ill-advised tweet earlier this month — which she later deleted — the communications minister, Stella Ndabeni-Abrahams, responded to one of Lesufi’s tweets, telling Vodacom to “shut up” and accusing the mobile operator of a “poor PR stunt” related to its settlement with Makate.
As the political head of the department that sets policy for the sector, there’s a strong argument to be made that she shouldn’t be involving herself, no matter how strongly she feels about the matter, in what is a commercial dispute between a major player in the industry and one of its former employees.
Until now, the matter has been dealt with in the correct way: through the legal system. By getting involved, Lesufi and Ndabeni-Abrahams are stoking the populist fires, no doubt to try to gain votes ahead of the elections, which are expected to take place in May this year.
No matter how passionately they might feel about the issue, political leaders need to respect the court judgment, which ultimately left it to Joosub to decide the compensation that would be paid to Makate. They might not like the outcome, but that’s how the legal system works. They urgently need to dial back the populist rhetoric and leave Makate and Vodacom to solve their commercial dispute using South Africa’s legal frameworks. Not doing so is inviting chaos and disorder. — © 2019 NewsCentral Media
- Duncan McLeod is editor of TechCentral