Vodacom urges 'de-escalation' amid Please Call Me tensions

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Vodacom is concerned further Please Call Me tensions would threaten jobs and investment.
Vodacom is concerned further Please Call Me tensions would threaten jobs and investment.

Vodacom has asked for a de-escalation of tensions as the 'Please Call Me' saga rages on. The mobile operator also dismissed allegations of racism surrounding the impasse.

This morning, the mobile operator held a conference call with members of the media following protests at its Vodaworld campus yesterday, when protestors descended on it, asking the operator to pay Please Call Me inventor, Nkosana Makate, his dues for coming up with the lucrative call-back service while he was still employed at the company.

The demonstration saw Vodacom shut down its campus amid safety and security concerns.

The Please Call Me matter goes as far back as 2001, when Makate, then a trainee accountant at Vodacom, said he came up with the idea for a product that allowed you to ask someone to call you, even if you were out of airtime.

Protracted dispute

In the conference call, Byron Kennedy, Vodacom's spokesperson, chronicled that the case started in 2001 when Makate was a full-time employee at Vodacom.

At the time, said Kennedy, Makate proposed an idea or concept to allow people without airtime to send a message requiring a call back.

"A protracted legal dispute developed; the matter went to the Johannesburg High Court, which found there was no legally-binding contract between Mr Makate and Vodacom.

"Mr Makate's application was dismissed by both the High Court and the Supreme Court of Appeal. The Constitutional Court, on appeal, subsequently found there was an agreement between Vodacom and Mr Makate, but noted that an outstanding contractual term, the price that we paid for Mr Makate's idea, still had to be negotiated.

He added that the Constitutional Court instructed Vodacom and Makate to enter into negotiations to agree a reasonable payment to Makate.

It also directed that in the event of a negotiation deadlock, Vodacom group CEO, Shameel Joosub, will be called on to break such a deadlock, Kennedy explained, adding that Joosub was excused from any discussion on the Makate matter at the exco and board level.

"It is a matter of public record that we complied in full with the order of the Constitutional Court. We have said repeatedly that we are very willing to pay Mr Makate a substantial amount of money - the exact amount which we are unable to disclose as we are bound by confidentiality."

He explained that Vodacom was informed that Makate planned to take a substantial amount placed on the table under judicial review, which means Makate would be taking the CEO's determination on a review to court.

"Most importantly, we want to de-escalate tensions, which, if not managed by all parties concerned, would threaten jobs as well as investments into South Africa.

"We understand the importance of this issue, and we understand the public's interest. However, claims that this is an issue of exploitation and racism over a former employee are not only simply not true but are completely unfounded.

"As a responsible corporate citizen, Vodacom, which is a level three BEE company, with 67% of management and 78% of staff being black South Africans, will not pay exorbitant amounts of money which have no bearing on reality."

According to Kennedy, this will jeopardise the livelihoods and sustainability of the company and this is not in the interest of administrative justice. "We are committed to paying a reasonable amount in line with the Constitutional Court ruling.

"Just remember that when Please Call Me was launched, it did not generate any direct revenue for Vodacom as subscribers were not charged for this service; it was offered for free and the intended plan to charge after the initial period was abandoned since there were many similar services in the market to offer for free.

"It is not, nor was it ever, a money-spinner. We are also aware that other parties [MTN] are claiming to have created this concept. The numerous patents launched for similar services are representative of how highly-contested this space has always been.

"We do, however, acknowledge that things could have been handled much better when Mr Makate was still an employee. We request for sane and cool heads to prevail in our current highly-politicised environment as we resolve this matter."

According to Kennedy, as the biggest mobile company in SA, Vodacom is focused on resolving this matter in the interest of all its customers and stakeholders.

Irrational demand

A group calling itself the #PleaseCallMe Movement is demanding that Vodacom pay Makate R70 billion in compensation, a figure also being widely reported by the media as Makate's price.

Also present during the call was Vodacom group CFO Till Streichert, who said R70 billion was an "irrational" figure to ask for.

"There have been various numbers over the past few years being quoted, with a figure of R70 billion being the most recently quoted in the context of the Please Call Me Movement," said Streichert.

"This is obviously on the one side of the extreme," he added.

According to Streichert, the South African net profit after tax for the last six years - taking the entire net profit for South Africa - is about R70 billion.

"So if someone demands a figure of R70 billion as a fair or reasonable compensation, it would, in essence, imply that the entire profits of the South African business for the last six years would have been due to Mr Makate. That, I think, highlights that such a demand is very irrational and completely outside of what we want and consider to be the outcome of the negotiation of a fair and reasonable compensation."

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