Vodacom has 55 million customers in 32 African companies, total assets of R96.5bn – and zero cojones, writes Sara Gon.
In a democracy, when a political party is unhappy about something said about or imputed to it, it issues a press release opposing what was said and that's it. Both sides use their constitutional right to freedom of speech. That's the end of the matter.
Not for Vodacom, however. On 29 November, Vodacom invited the chairman of Corruption Watch, Mavuso Msimang, to give the keynote address at the Vodacom Journalist of the Year awards.
The event is surely intended to celebrate robust and courageous journalism.Vodacom would have anticipated a robust speech by the chairman of an NGO whose raison d'?tre is exposing corruption.
READ: Ferial Haffajee: Has Vodacom lost its marbles?
Msimang said that Julius Malema and the EFF were abusers of democracy and showed an image of them during a presentation. Most people wouldn't have considered that these comments were either particularly controversial or incorrect.
Anyway, freedom of speech is a right that Julius Malema and his leadership have abused time and again to express racism and threaten people.
Just to prove Msimang's point, on 30 November, EFF national spokesman Dr Mbuyiseni Ndlozi tweeted:
"Fighters don't be surprised when @Vodacom gathers journalists to strategies on how to deal with EFF. It just means our fight is right where it belongs, in the belly of the beast: #WhiteMonopolyCapitalism."
Two days later EFF members and supporters vandalised two Vodacom stores in Limpopo and assaulted three female staff members. Damage of R500 000 resulted.
Vodacom responded to the trashing, assaulting and theft by the EFF by issuing the following statement:
"Vodacom respects the right of every South African to freedom of expression and to hold legal and peaceful protests. But we condemn any form of violent behaviour, including the destruction of properties. These incidents seem to be linked to comments made by Mavuso Msimang. He was talking about the importance of media freedom. Mr Msimang was speaking in his capacity as the chairperson of Corruption Watch. Obviously, the views are his own and not those held by Vodacom. Certain stores including Mall of the North will remain closed until further notice. The safety and security of our customers and franchise staff remains of utmost importance."
This was the first pusillanimous act by Vodacom. It threw Msimang under the bus by saying that his views about the importance of media freedom were his own and "not those held by Vodacom". It is difficult to see why not, because Msimang's statements are true.
Vodacom is saying that it doesn't hold the same views as Msimang about the importance of media freedom. This does raise the question as to why Vodacom sponsored these awards in the first place.
Vodacom was trying to appease the EFF, presumably in the desperate and erroneous belief that it would ensure that the EFF didn't further interfere with their right to trade peacefully over the festive season.
The second pusillanimous act was to meet EFF leaders Julius Malema, Floyd Shivambu, Mbuyiseni Ndlozi and others. The Vodacom delegation was headed by CEO Shameel Joosub no less.
The meeting was held at the EFF's headquarters. It isn't clear who initiated the meeting but one has to assume it was Vodacom; the initiator of a meeting usually goes to the venue of the other party.
In an act of abject cowardice, Joosub and some colleagues reached a "joint agreement" with the EFF.
A joint statement was issued in which Joosub said Vodacom met the EFF to discuss comments and slides presented by Msimang, and the subsequent unrest.
"In the meeting, the parties discussed the matter in detail and have resolved the issue. Vodacom acknowledged that it is politically neutral and it doesn't influence party political positions in any way.
"Vodacom and EFF appreciate that the matter could have been handled differently to avoid the misunderstanding that occurred.
"The parties also committed to engage on policy issues of mutual interest and consider the matter to be closed."
What Vodacom should have done is sent a letter of demand to the EFF for payment for the damage incurred and any hospital costs incurred by the assaulted employees. But, no, it went cap in hand to the EFF to ask them not to hurt them again.
Instead of standing up to a party that has proved itself repeatedly to be willing to abuse its democratic rights, it appeased them.
Vodacom has 55 million customers in 32 African companies, revenue of R86.370bn, total assets of R96.543bn, total equity of R131.365bn – and zero cojones. This is yet another example of corporate cowardice in the face of political bullying.
It fell to the Democratic Alliance to lay charges against the EFF for malicious damage to property.
- Sara Gon is a policy fellow at the Institute of Race Relations (IRR), a think tank that promotes political and economic freedom. If you agree with what you have just read then click here or SMS your name to 32823 (SMSes cost R1, Ts and Cs apply).
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