Take the money and be happy, many people told him. Even some of his friends urged him to accept what he’d been offered – but Nkosana Makate refuses to budge. Yes, R47 million is a large sum of money, he says. But if you consider how much Vodacom has made from his game-changing idea, it’s a drop in the ocean.
Nkosana (42), the well-known inventor of the company’s widely used Please Call Me service, is now steeling himself for another round in court with the communications giant. He believes the R47m settlement they’ve offered isn’t a fair reflection of what he’s due.
“I refused to take it because Vodacom did their calculations in secret. They weren’t transparent enough to disclose how they came to that amount. I know they made more than that and I want them to publicly disclose how much they made from my invention.”
Nkosana has no idea how Vodacom decided on R47m. “I’m completely in the dark as to what revenues the CEO applied to come up with that number,” explains the Katlehong-born accountant.
In 2016 the Constitutional Court ruled Vodacom had to compensate Nkosana for his innovative idea but said the company had to negotiate a “reasonable compensation” and that the CEO should determine an amount in the case of a deadlock.
Vodacom CEO Shameel Joosub then offered R47m and this is now at the heart of his latest court battle. The negotiations that followed were anything but reasonable, Nkosana tells DRUM.
“It was hostile, it was torture and it was hell. The negotiations weren’t in good faith. I was treated like I had no rights.”
He was offered just 5% of the revenue generated over the past 18 years, instead of the 15% he asked for, he adds. And Nkosana is not willing to accept that.
“I’m willing to wait as long as it takes. I did not flinch then and I will not flinch now. I just want them to be fair.”
Nkosana was just 23 and a trainee accountant when he came up with the brilliant Please Call Me idea. He was in a long-distance relationship with his now- wife Rebecca, who was studying medicine at the University of Fort Hare in the Eastern Cape, then later at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, while he lived and worked in Joburg.
As a student, Rebecca couldn’t afford expensive cellphone calls so she’d give Nkosana a call and hang up after two rings so he’d know to call her when she didn’t have airtime. This routine inspired him to draft his Please Call Me plan, which he then shared with various people within Vodacom.
“I was young. I had trust in the system,” he says bitterly. “I should have consulted lawyers before presenting the idea.”
The court cases that followed were daunting at first. “In the beginning I was a bit discouraged – I was young,” he says.
The stress has taken its toll over the years – instead of spending time with Rebecca, who’s now a paediatrician, and their three daughters, aged 5, 11 and 15, Nkosana has been preparing for lengthy legal battles.
His family don’t discuss the case much but they support him, he says. “My wife blocks it out. She will ask about the case but she doesn’t go into deep discussion.”
Nkosana is now head of finance for the South African Local Government Association, a body that brings together various local governments. He’s had to give up family holidays to save his leave days for court sessions. But the sacrifices are for his loved ones.
“This is my family’s legacy. And I’m doing it for other people who have been exploited by big companies.”
He believes Vodacom owes him R10,2 billion.
“These numbers may shock the public but not Vodacom,” Nkosana says. “We aren’t dealing with a spaza shop on the corner somewhere. This is an international phenomenon.”
According to Vodacom’s initial development plan for Please Call Me, which was created in 2001, the company was expecting to make as much as $23m (then R195,5m) a day from people using the service. And all he wanted was his share, Nkosana says.
“I was at the lowest point in my life when I was called ‘greedy’ by Vodacom. I had given them a revolutionary concept, which was rolled out on other networks, and yet I was portrayed as greedy.”
Yet he stuck around with the company for another two years to complete his accounting articles before quitting to join Nedbank in 2003.
His legal battles have racked up expensive bills and Nkosana is also currently involved in court action with the people who said they would help him cover his costly legal fees. He was funded by a company who agreed to pay his legal bills until he lost his case at the high court.
They parted ways after that ruling but after the Constitutional Court ruled that Vodacom must give him a reasonable amount, the company staked a claim to get 50% of Nkosana’s payout. He now has lawyers who he’s paying himself, he says, and they’re also advising him on the Vodacom payout calculations.
What will he do when this is all over?
“I don’t think about it much. I don’t think about Hawaii. I mean, it does cross my mind sometimes, but I don’t live in a future I’ve not created. I don’t count the chickens before they hatch,” he says, laughing.
When it’s all eventually over, Nkosana looks forward to reflecting on his long, difficult journey.
“I will take a sabbatical for a year or two to relax,” he says.
“These are dark days for me. But once all of it is over I will take a long rest away from everything.
“For now, I am here. I will not go down without a fight. It’s not personal. I just want what rightfully belongs to me.”
When contacted for comment, a Vodacom spokesperson said the company was aware that a review application had been filed at the high court in Gauteng.
“As the matter is once again before the courts, we are not in a position to comment on the merits of the application. Suffice to say that we will oppose the application. Vodacom still holds the view that it entered into negotiations and negotiated with Mr Makate and his team in good faith, in accordance with the order of the Constitutional Court.”