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GovChat dream turned into ‘nightmare’, says founder

Simnikiwe Mzekandaba
By Simnikiwe Mzekandaba, IT in government editor
Johannesburg, 02 Aug 2023
GovChat founder Eldrid Jordaan.
GovChat founder Eldrid Jordaan.

Eldrid Jordaan says he is saddened that GovChat, which he founded, is in business rescue.

The former CEO made the comments while remarking on the Competition Tribunal’s latest decisionto allow GovChat and #LetsTalk to participate in an alleged abuse of dominance case brought by the Competition Commission against Meta Platforms (formerly Facebook), WhatsApp and Facebook South Africa.

Jordaan resigned from his role in the company late last year, but remains majority shareholder of the citizen engagement platform. The founder and his partners in K2018 own 65% majority shares in GovChat, while the remaining 35% of the business is held by shareholders and its largest creditor Capital Appreciation.

“This [business rescue] is really sad because the platform was created for social impact and that impact was felt by well over 13 million South Africans.

“I’m happy and excited from a legal perspective, but not so excited about where GovChat is right now. It’s like a double-edged sword. For a start-up needing to go this way and against the largest and most popular technology company in the world, what does that say?

“I’m saddened by the current position of GovChat, and Facebook and WhatsApp had a huge role to play in where it is, which is in the business rescue process. It shouldn’t be that way.

“My dream for GovChat was to be able to connect citizens with government, and I did that. That dream has now turned into a nightmare.”

Founded by Jordaan in 2016, GovChat was officially launched in 2018, in partnership with the Department of Cooperative Governance and Traditional Affairs (COGTA).

It is a platform that enables citizens to engage with government on service delivery matters. It can be accessed through WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger, SMS and USSD channels.

Summoning the big guns

The Competition Tribunal this week granted the civic engagement platform leave to intervene in the alleged abuse of dominance case against Meta Platforms, WhatsApp and Facebook South Africa.

This, after GovChat and #LetsTalk applied for participation rights in the pending proceedings on the basis that their interests are not adequately represented by the commission and that they can assist the tribunal in certain respects.

The start-up has over the past years been embroiled in a legal battle with Facebook parent company Meta, with the tech giant accusing it of violating its terms of service and threatening to off-board GovChat from its WhatsApp platform.

The controversial dispute caused a public outcry when Meta-owned WhatsApp sought to terminate GovChat and #LetsTalk, a technology start-up that connects government and citizens, from the WhatsApp Business application programming interface.

GovChat eventually came out victorious when the Competition Commission referred Meta Platforms and its subsidiaries, WhatsApp and Facebook South Africa, to the Competition Tribunal for prosecution for abuse of dominance.

According to Jordaan, this latest decision by the tribunal allows GovChat to participate in the alleged abuse of market dominance hearings. As a result, he will call an urgent shareholders’ meeting in the next few days, as the majority shareholder.

“This is going to be a first. A few years back, former Democratic Alliance MP Phumzile van Damme summoned Facebook South Africa to Parliament for a hearing, but they didn’t attend and the whole thing fell through.

“Now, Facebook executives are going to be summoned and cross-examined by the tribunal and GovChat, specifically. We can recommend witnesses to be summoned as well. This is over and above what the Competition Commission and Competition Tribunal are going to do.

“Every legal course that we’ve taken, we have won. It’s four-zero, if you count what we had to go through and millions of rands’ worth of legal fees to get to this point.”

Jordaan believes the outcome of the case has the potential to set another precedent.

“From a legal perspective, the fact that GovChat will participate in this has already set a precedent. Regulators around the world are watching this matter really closely…it has massive effects if it is not addressed by Facebook properly.”

As for GovChat moving forward, Jordaan believes the platform still has a future. “I founded it and it was co-created with the South African government; it has agreements with COGTA, the Department of Health and SASSA.

“It is a legislative requirement in Parliament, which states municipalities and provinces must implement GovChat. It is a public participation tool and it’s the official citizen engagement platform for the South African government.”