Nkosana Makate: 'Alan Knott-Craig is not the beast'

2013-08-11 10:00

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Makate tells Dewald van Rensburg of his sadness to hear Knott-Craig ‘lying’ about his concept

The man who says mobile operator Vodacom stole the Please Call Me idea from him still calls Alan Knott-Craig a “doyen”. And he still subscribes to the Vodacom network.

Nkosana Makate has just spent three weeks in the South Gauteng High Court defending his claim that he invented the Please Call Me concept, and that he had a verbal contract with the operator entitling him to a share in the proceeds from the successful innovation.

The hearing is the culmination of a 13-year battle.

“It’s been very stressful, being in court and under cross-examination. I underestimated how difficult it would be,” Makate told City Press during an interview on Friday.

Practising yoga and transcendental meditation “almost every day” has helped, he says.

Makate claims he invented the concept while working as a junior accountant at Vodacom in 2000.

Knott-Craig, however, claims he invented the concept himself in a classic eureka moment, standing on a balcony watching two security guards trying to communicate through missed calls. Knott-Craig was chief executive of the Vodacom Group between May 1993 and September 2008.

Makate’s version isn’t quite that neat. It started with his cash-strapped girlfriend, who was a student at Fort Hare University at the time.

A lack of money for airtime was interfering with their long-distance relationship.

“I wasn’t sure if this girl was not calling me because she didn’t want to, or if she didn’t have airtime,” he says. “I wanted to put that to bed and focus on the love.”

After a few months of communication failures in early 2000, Makate developed his idea and ultimately presented it to his superiors.

His then airtime-less girlfriend is, incidentally, now his wife, with whom he has two children.

“She was not able to call me. That is how the idea was born.

I wanted to change the system so that people without airtime could initiate calls,” he adds.

“I knew I would call back and talk for hours. That’s how the company would make money.

“I could imagine a lot of people had the same problem. My proposal was to identify the whole market affected by this problem, like my girlfriend, and to identify the benefits of a solution.

“I’m not a technical person, I’m just an accountant.”

While Vodacom operationalised the concept, “the whole package was already there”, he says.

“The truth is the truth. Everybody knows I came up with it.”

Although Makate pitched his idea in 2000, he only left Vodacom in 2003 after completing his articles at the Midrand-based company.

“I knew the company had done me wrong,” he says. “But I could not fight from within. I had to leave first.”

He then started seeking legal advice, suffered a spell of depression and spent a lot of money during his campaign for recognition. “It has occupied every aspect of my life.”

These days, Makate is studying sociology and psychology at Wits University and is hoping to obtain his master’s degree.

In the long term, he wants to lecture. “I’m more of a teacher than a number cruncher.”

Makate already moonlights as a motivational speaker at high schools where he gives talks related to his Please Call Me battle.

He is now waiting for the high court judgment in order to finish the last chapter of his book.

The book is titled Taming the Corporate Beast. But it is not, as some might think, about Knott-Craig.

“Alan is not the beast. It’s much bigger than him,” says Makate.

“He just fell into the clutches of the beast. He is someone I respect and it’s sad to see him say the things he said.”

It’s going to be an inspirational book aimed at the youth, he says. “It’s about perseverance and never giving up.”

Makate is also working on a script for a film adaptation.

He believes the case before the court deals with a far larger issue than the Please Call Me invention.

The “beastliness” in the corporate world relates to how resources are shared, he says. “Ideas are worth a lot. I think people should be paid for them.

“It comes from both sides. People take their own ideas for granted. I think companies will also grow better if they reward ideas.”

He adds: “I’m not a techie, but I have a knack for ideas.”

Makate has a patent for a cellular service called I’ve Arrived. It came out of his experience as a taxi owner and the concept is “yet to gain traction”.

“I’m always looking for opportunities,” he says.

So what does he think his invention is worth?

With about 38 million Please Calls Mes being sent in a single day, carrying advertising and bringing in money through the calls that follow, “it’s a huge amount”, he says.

“We’ve been trying to get records from Vodacom ... if this (court) case goes our way, we can get those.”

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