TO Molefe

If Vodacom were an ethical company...

2014-07-07 12:03

TO Molefe

From now on, I'll be moving every copy I come across of former Vodacom CEO Alan Knott-Craig's autobiography to a special shelf in the fiction section. Libraries, book stores, wherever - the books must be moved. The autobiography belongs there, right next to drug-cheat Lance Armstrong's It's Not About The Bike and other works of literary forgery.

In his book, Second Is Nothing, Knott-Craig claims the invention of Vodacom's Please Call Me service came about by chance - a version of events the South Gauteng High Court last week dismissed as nonsensical and completely implausible.

This was one of the many damning pronouncements the court issued on Knott-Craig's proclivity for fictionalised versions of how the service was invented.

The court had been approached by a former trainee accountant at Vodacom, Nkosana Makate, to compel the company to pay him his fair share of the advertising and call revenue the service has generated. Up to now, Vodacom has refused and dishonestly relied on technicalities to weasel out of an obligation an ethical company would have settled a long time ago.

Lies fall apart

The story, according to Knott-Craig, is that he and a colleague, Phil Geisser, one day saw a Vodacom security guard trying to get another guard's attention. When that failed, the guard called his buddy on his mobile phone. Seeing this somehow inspired Knott-Craig to speak to another colleague immediately about creating a free Please Call Me service, which went on to generate hundreds of millions in advertising and call revenue.

But this version of events fell apart when Knott-Craig was cross examined in court and further evidence was presented.

To start with, when the service was launched in 2001, Geisser sent an e-mail to the entire company acknowledging that Please Call Me was Makate's idea. And managing director Andrew Mthembu did the same in the company's newsletter a month later.

Knott-Craig told the court rather unbelievably that he saw neither the e-mail nor the newsletter until 2009, even though the newsletter carried an article supposedly written by the CEO himself.

Vodacom's lawyers presented the court with an email from Geisser written in 2009 in which he agrees with Knott-Craig's version. But, in this newer version, which contradicts Geisser's e-mail from 2001, the two security guards did not have airtime.

The judge asked how, then, was it possible for one guard to call the other, as claimed in Knott-Craig's version, if neither had airtime? And how could Geisser and Knott-Craig, who were observing from an office far away, have possibly known that the guards did not have airtime?

They couldn't, that's how. That's why the judge found that the most probable story is that these two men knowingly conspired and fabricated a story to salvage Knott-Craig's reputation as a technology pioneer and so that Vodacom wouldn't have to pay Makate.

Love conquers airtime

The real story of how Please Call Me came to be is a lot more romantic than the fictionalised version Knott-Craig popularised.

Makate came up with the idea from being in a long-distance relationship with a university student who'd later become his wife. At the time, however, she seldom called him. She didn't even "buzz" him (call and hang up before he answered).

Makate didn't know if it was because she was not interested, or if she didn't have airtime. When it turned out to be the latter, he realised that there were millions of other people in the country in similar situations, so he came up with what he called the "Buzz Option". He took the idea to his employer Vodacom, who came up with the technological underpinnings and launched the service as Please Call Me.

In an interview last year, Knott-Craig conceded that Please Call Me was Makate's idea. But he tried to make it seem as though "the youngster" was expecting a cut of Vodacom's revenue just for doing his job. But that's just not so. Makate was hired as an accountant, not a product developer.

Vodacom is smoking its socks if it expects to freely profit from product ideas devised by its non-product development employees.

It's these kinds of technicalities, whether real or imagined, that Vodacom and its former CEO have tried to exploit. And ultimately it is technicalities that saw the court dismiss Makate's case against the company.

Makate is appealing and, from my reading, the law of contract is on his side on both of the technicalities that saw the case dismissed. I hope, though, that Vodacom comes to its senses before the matter is brought before the Supreme Court of Appeal.

In its handling of the case, it has thus far failed to live up to the ethical business practices claimed in its integrated report and other marketing bumf. Instead, the company and its former CEO have tried to characterise Makate as greedy and his demands exorbitant. However the truth is that this description is more aptly applied to Vodacom and Knott-Craig.

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