It’s being hailed as the ultimate David vs Goliath story of the South African corporate world. One man takes on the might of the telecommunications industry, fights a lonely battle for 15 years, and eventually wins a payout that looks likely to amount to billions of rands.
Yet Nkosana Makate, now certified by the highest court in the land as the inventor of Vodacom’s Please Call Me function, sounds unruffled by all the fuss. When asked how he celebrated Tuesday’s Constitutional Court ruling in his favour, Makate replies: “I had a few sips of champagne. That was it.”
His calm demeanour belies the turmoil of the last decade and a half.
Makate grew up in Katlehong, east of Johannesburg, and describes a football-mad childhood. “I was a typical South African township boy,” he says.
In 1995 he got his break: a government initiative which required telecommunications companies to train people in the accounting field. Makate was taken on by Vodacom.
Given what was to happen subsequently, it may surprise people to hear that Makate still has warm memories of Vodacom.
“It was a wonderful company,” he says now. “It was my first corporate experience.”
An eight-year stint at Vodacom was to be followed by positions at Nedbank, the City of Johannesburg and the South African Local Government Association (Salga), where he still works.
As a 24-year-old at Vodacom in 2000, Makate had a girlfriend who was studying at the University of Fort Hare in the Eastern Cape. She didn’t have much money; talking to each other on the phone was a problem. If his girlfriend had no airtime, it was impossible for her to give him a missed call, which was how she could indicate she wanted to reach him.
Makate had an idea. What if there were a free Vodacom service which would enable his girlfriend to send him a standard message asking him to call her? He can remember the exact date the concept came to him: November 22 2000.
He couldn’t flesh out the technical side of how the idea would work. “I’m not an engineer,” he says. What he could provide to Vodacom was the idea, “basically, what I was seeking to achieve”.
Makate took the idea to his manager, who passed it on to Vodacom’s director of product development Philip Geissler. Makate says he had a verbal agreement with Geissler that he would receive compensation for the concept.
Vodacom could see the value of the idea almost immediately. Less than three months later, Geissler was introducing the concept of the Please Call Me to staff, and congratulating Makate in an internal email.
He wrote: “Kenneth [Nkosana] Makate from our finance department came up with this idea a few months ago and brought it to the Product Development Division. We wish to thank Kenneth for bringing his idea to our attention.”
Please Call Me was formally launched in March 2001. It was an instant hit. About 140 000 users took up the service in the first day. Since its introduction, it has been estimated that Please Call Me has brought in at least R70-billion in revenue for Vodacom.
But if Makate expected his payday, he had a nasty surprise coming. Vodacom, it emerged, had no intention of remunerating Makate for his idea.
Vodacom’s erstwhile chief executive Alan Knott-Craig, who left the company in 2008, went so far as to create a fake origin story for Please Call Me. In his 2009 autobiography Second Is Nothing, he claimed he conceived of the idea when watching two Vodacom security guards attempt to communicate with each other through missed calls.
Makate left Vodacom in 2003 with a heavy heart. “It was depressing,” he says. “I had basically given up.”
In the years to come, Makate would learn just how difficult it would be to claim his due from one of South Africa’s most powerful companies. Lawyers turned him down repeatedly. He often thought about giving up.
“Eventually when I decided to say, ‘No, let me go on,’ I found lawyers who were really brave,” he says.
Makate’s case eventually reached the high court in Johannesburg in 2014. There, more disappointment was in store. The case was dismissed on two grounds: that Geissler had not had the authority to offer Makate compensation for his idea, and that Makate should have launched his claim earlier.
A glimmer of hope, however, was found in the court’s criticism of Knott-Craig’s “greedy” approach.
Makate had one shot left: to approach South Africa’s apex court, the Constitutional Court. There, on Tuesday, he finally achieved his vindication. The judgment was unsparing in its criticism of Knott-Craig, referring to him as having created “a false narrative”, an “untrue story” and a “lie”.
It further described Knott-Craig as having “performed dismally” as a witness in the high court and characterised his conduct as “dishonourable”.
Yet Makate says he bears no grudges towards Knott-Craig. “[Vodacom] was a vibrant company. I was happy working there.”
He pauses, then offers a slight clarification: “I mean, he is not my friend.”
Makate won’t be drawn on how much his settlement from Vodacom is likely to be. Early reports, however, estimated a figure of anything from R700-million to R10.5-billion.
Has he suddenly become very popular with friends and family? “I’ve always been popular with friends and family,” he replies.
Though he says he has no immediate plans for the money, there’s little doubt that Makate’s life is about to change. For the moment, however, he is still a Salga employee, living in Johannesburg with his wife – the former Fort Hare girlfriend who sparked his idea – and their three daughters.
Today, he can’t even remember the last time he received a Please Call Me.
“My wife left varsity a while ago,” he says. “I’d get a Please Call Me once in a while when I was running a mini-business in Sebokeng, and some of my workers would use it to get hold of me.”
He speculates that perhaps more Please Call Me’s are in his future once his daughters are old enough to start using cellphones.
Makate’s story is one that seems destined for a book, and he confirms that he hopes to complete one by the end of the year. A film is on the cards, too. When asked if he has an actor in mind to play him in the movie, he replies: “I’ll play myself. I’m turning 40, but I still look 24.”