Cartoonist slaps Eskom with R25m bill

2012-09-29 19:43

One of the largest copyright abuse claims in South Africa’s history has landed Eskom with a R25 million invoice.

And if they don’t pay up, say lawyers, cartoonist Mvuyisi Wilber Mfebe could lay criminal charges that may land the electricity parastatal’s bosses in jail.

Mfebe claims that Eskom stole his work to create their ongoing national campaign, called Wiseman, without ever paying him a cent.

For the past decade, the artist and shop steward has appealed to numerous government departments and tried repeatedly to settle the matter, which was eventually investigated by Eskom in 2010.

He then received word from Ayanda Noah, an Eskom group executive, asking for an invoice but refusing to admit culpability for any copyright infringement.

“Our investigation could not ascertain that you are the owner of the idea,” Noah wrote to Mfebe in correspondence in the possession of City Press.

“But we will pay an amount that we believe is fair ...” In another letter, she said the decision was made “purely on the basis of ubuntu”.

After consulting a lawyer, Mfebe supplied an invoice of R25 million for the extensive use of his concept, cartoons and words that had appeared in newspapers, on radio and on television.

The matter has also been taken up by the Public Protector’s office, which this week escalated it.

Their communication manager, Oupa Segalwe, told City Press: “The Public Protector is of the view that there is merit to Mr Mfebe’s complaint, hence the decision to investigate. A meeting has been scheduled between the parties.”

Mfebe’s dealings with Eskom began in good faith when he was working as a freelance cartoonist with Indabazethu, the now-defunct Xhosa-language edition of the Daily Dispatch.

He created a series of electricity safety cartoons about a man called Silumko (Wise Man in Xhosa) that he faxed as an educational advertising strategy proposal to Eskom’s Eastern Cape operation in 2002.

“A lady called Letitia Ndeda called me. She was tremendously happy about the idea and made a commitment that Eskom would take Silumko national and that I would drive the strategy,” said Mfebe this week when City Press visited him in Meadowlands.

Mfebe is now unemployed and lives alone in a modest house belonging to his aunt. He is clearly disheartened after years of trying to fight the parastatal without any resources.

“I was shocked when I saw that they started publishing my work as a series of advertorials in Indabazethu,” he recalls. “They had removed my signature from the strips.”

When he confronted Eskom, he was told that it was the newspaper’s duty to pay him, which Indabazethu denied.

“Then I saw they had created this character Wiseman for a big campaign exactly like the one I had proposed. There were radio adverts where he used the same words as Silumko. Later, there were posters and pamphlets, and inserts in newspapers.

They even did a TV show. The character is now generated by computer, but he is the same! You can see from how he makes hand gestures, and what he wears and how he talks.”

Mfebe took his complaint to SAfm.

“They put us on radio and a Mr Zulu told me the problem was that Eskom was trying to get hold of me to meet, but couldn’t find me,” said Mfebe.

Towards the end of 2009, a general manager at the parastatal, MJ Möller, wrote to Mfebe saying Eskom denied his claims that Wiseman was based on Silumko and that “Eskom regards this matter as closed and will not entertain any further correspondence”.

Mfebe continued to lobby, though, until Eskom agreed to conduct an investigation. In the course of his battle, Mfebe lost his job at liquor company Distell and was threatened by President Jacob Zuma with a R5 million lawsuit for a cartoon he drew for the Sowetan about Zuma’s rape trial.

It seems his complaint is finally receiving attention – and has left Eskom on the back foot.

This week, spokesperson Hilary Joffe said Eskom was not in a position to answer detailed questions.

“We are cooperating fully with the investigation by the Public Protector and we are due to meet on October 8 to resolve the matter,” she said.

But Mfebe’s lawyer, Asael Phetoe of Madzara Attorneys, said the sudden meeting was premature.

“I’ve consulted with an expert in copyright law, who is preparing a report into exactly what damages can be claimed,” he told City Press, adding that civil action was not the only remedy available.

Phetoe said he might decide to rather advise his client to pursue criminal charges against Eskom.

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