Nkosana Makate-Nhlapho. Picture: SUNDAY TIMES
Just less than 2 decades ago, South African man Nkosana Makate came up with a new concept which changed how people would communicate via mobile phones when they did not have any credit in their phones.
Makate invented the “Please Call Me” function. According to popular lore, Makate wanted to ensure that his long distance-girlfriend would always be able to talk to him when she wanted. Even if she did not have any credit on her phone which sometimes happened as she was still a student. As a result, he came up with the “Please Call Me” function.
The “Please Call Me” is a service that allows mobile subscribers to send a limited number of free messages per day to other subscribers on the same network, requesting the other party to call them back. This was particularly useful in those days when there was no ubiquitous social media or affordable broadband internet services.
Unfortunately for Makate, his then-employer, mobile network operator Vodacom started the Please Call Me Service in 2001 but refused to compensate him for his role. This is despite the fact that Makate entered into a verbal agreement with Vodacom’s then head of product development, Phillip Geissler who promised him compensation.
Vodacom’s then chief executive, Alan Knott-Craig, even went on to claim in his autobiography Second is Nothing that it was actually his idea. He claimed that it had been sparked by observing two security guards trying to call each other without having airtime.
This set the stage for a bruising lengthy legal battle which pitted Matake against the telecoms giant which ultimately ended at the highest court in the land, the Constitutional Court.
After Makate filed a civil lawsuit against the company in 2008. However, he lost the case at the High Court and a subsequent appeal at the Supreme Court after Vodacom denied that Makate had invented the service.
Aggrieved by both decisions, Makate appealed to the Constitutional Court. In 2016, the Apex court ruled in his favour and dismissed Knott-Craig’s claim. The Constitutional Court found that there was a valid contract between Makate and Vodacom due to the agreement made by Geissler.
The Constitutional Court ordered Vodacom to negotiate with Makate “in good faith” and to “determine reasonable compensation”. The Constitutional Court further ruled that in the event that the parties failed to come to an agreement, then Vodacom’s CEO would have the final say on the compensation figure.
Unfortunately, the matter is yet to be concluded and seems to be far from over after Makate turned down the offer from Vodacom.