Please Call Me scrap heads for court

06 July 2014 - 02:04 By Asha Speckman
TIME TO PAY UP: Nkosana Makate wants his slice
TIME TO PAY UP: Nkosana Makate wants his slice

Nkosana Makate, who is at the centre of a David versus Goliath battle against cellphone giant Vodacom, says he will fight all the way to the Constitutional Court to get what is owed to him.

Makate, 38, says he came up with the idea for the successful Please Call Me service after his student girlfriend could not afford to call him and he was unsure whether she was simply avoiding him. At the time, in 2000, he was a junior accountant at Vodacom. He alleges that after he pitched his plan to his bosses, Vodacom took his idea and made millions.

The Please Call Me concept is one of the most successful South African innovations and more than 20 million messages are sent every day by Vodacom alone.

But Makate's effort to hold Vodacom accountable received a setback this week when High Court Judge Phillip Coppin dismissed his case.

Makate vowed that this was not the end of his battle, saying it paved the way to the Supreme Court of Appeal and the Constitutional Court .

If anything, he said, Coppin had recognised that a contract - albeit verbal -- existed between the parties.

Makate, who is writing a book called Please Call Me: the Nkosana Story, said he had had overwhelming support. "I'm concerned about my contract and that's what I'm pursuing," he said. "They can even have ownership. Initially I thought that they would own it and just share the profits. They'll take a bigger chunk, I'll take a smaller chunk. I was happy with that. But I'm glad that South Africa is starting to appreciate that I was not out to sink this company."

Taking on Vodacom requires deep pockets, which is why Makate's case is being funded by a company called Sterling-Rand, which is hoping for a cut of the damages.

Sterling-Rand's Tracey Ro-scher said the lawyers would file an application to the Supreme Court next week. They want Vodacom to recognise the verbal contract and agree to negotiate payment.

She said they would not settle for a cent less than R650-million in damages from Vodacom. Makate had originally asked for 15% of the money that Vodacom would make.

"We will be exercising all our options," she said.

The hearings played out in the High Court in Johannesburg last year. Makate detailed how, when he was an inexperienced 24-year-old, he approached his supervisor in November 2000 with the idea of being able to create a service that would allow one person to make contact with another, despite being out of airtime. The return call, he reasoned, would make cash for Vodacom.

His supervisor suggested he present the concept to one of Vodacom's directors, Philip Geissler, who at the time was head of product development.

Vodacom loved it and, according to Makate, struck a verbal deal that it would discuss how he would be paid once the concept was in operation. He initially expected 15% of the cash that Vodacom made from this.

In court, Vodacom argued that this sort of deal with employees was abnormal and Geissler did not have the authority to agree to it.

Coppin said: "The fact that it was Mr Geissler's job to attend to new products did not translate into him having authority to enter into [those] agreements."

But when Vodacom reneged on the deal, Makate said, he took them to court.

His story is at odds with that of former Vodacom CEO Alan Knott-Craig, who said in his book, Second Is Nothing, that Please Call Me happened by chance when he was chatting to Geissler one day. Geissler said he saw a security guard trying without luck to call a colleague. But under cross-examination in court, Knott-Craig admitted that Vodacom ended up implementing Makate's idea.

When asked: "Do you accept this was Mr Makate's idea?", he said: "It would seem this idea was sparked by someone, and this idea was sparked by Kenneth Makate."

Given Knott-Craig's admission, this week's result was something of a surprise.

Makate said in court that Knott-Craig believed he was simply "greedy" so he would not get a cent from Vodacom.