IN a just and fair society, disgraced former Vodacom chief executive, Alan Knott- Craig would be sanctioned for lying to board members, thousands of staff and millions of customers who are subscribed to the telecommunications giant after he claimed in an autobiography that he came up with the lucrative Please Call Me service that revolutionized the industry.
This gross display of unethical behavior has finally culminated into a verdict delivered by the Constitutional Court, which has ordered Vodacom to compensate inventor Nkosana Makate after a nine-year battle in this precedent setting case.
The ConCourt says Vodacom has to begin negotiations within 30 days and determine a reasonable compensation payable to him in terms of the findings. One of the key lessons here is that regardless of what one’s employment contract stipulates, companies still have a moral obligation to help nurture and grow individuals who come up with ideas that help put their employers ahead of the game.
Makate is the man behind the lucrative Please Call Me service. He came up with this idea in 2000 as a trainee accountant in the company, when he experienced problems with communicating with his girlfriend, with whom he was in a long distance relationship.
A powerful story
This story alone is so powerful and represents a lost opportunity on both sides. The experience could have been used as a very lucrative marketing gimmick by Vodacom had the company acted ethically and in good faith. This is the kind of stuff that block buster romantic dramas and best-selling books are made out of.
Imagine: A love story between two people who struggled to communicate and how they revolutionized an industry that would not give them the recognition that they deserve. As a country that grapples with the migrant labour system where families are separated because of an over concentration of jobs in major cities around the country, this story would have touched the hearts of millions and Vodacom would have endeared itself to the hearts of Africans around the continent.
However, the evil of corporate greed and racism crept in, and one man was hell bent on feeding the majority of South Africans, shareholders and customers of Vodacom an entirely different story. A story that has turned out to be one of the biggest displays of corporate arrogance, greed and lies that the country has ever seen since the dawn of democracy in 1994.
This is why there has to be a probe into whether an incentive or performance bonus was received by Knott-Craig from shareholders, after he lied and said he came up with the idea while chatting to a colleague on a balcony of Vodacom’s headquarters in Midrand.
If he had received a performance bonus, incentive or any type of remuneration for “coming up” with this specific idea, surely criminal charges should be pursued as he would have received this under false pretences.
The way in which Vodacom handled the entire case is proof that corporate racism and discrimination is still alive and well in South Africa. The sad lesson in this case is that an opportunity to build something positive has been lost and may never be retrieved.
Over the last 15 years, Vodacom, as a telecommunications conglomerate could have been an inspiration for young black people to rise above the challenges that they face in their everyday lives.
The ConCourt rightly deduces that the service did not solve the communication problem between the two users, however, it has evolved with people being able to personalize it for different purposes.
As a Vodacom subscriber coming from a disadvantaged community and background, one would have received personalized Please Call Me’s, perhaps even from other networks, ranging from: Please Call I LOVE YOU, Please Call I MISS U, to Please Call No AIRTYM.
Although customers who use the service in this manner are considered to be at the bottom of the pyramid by so called marketing gurus, it is foolish to think that they do not add value, and had the right approach been
considered, the company may have opened untapped opportunities instead of being involved in a strenuous legal battle that has probably cost them millions of rands, and will most likely cost the company billions in the foreseeable future.
As the countdown towards the 30 days commences, what is sad about this situation is that the cost of compensation may find its way to the consumers of Vodacom’s products. The company was prepared to defend unethical behavior and corporate greed till the bitter end, costing it a fortune in the process instead of settling and looking at ways to make the situation work not only for the plaintiff but for the millions of its subscribers.
Makate’s story is proof that commitment and resilience can lead to a prevalence of justice which will now eclipse the lies that have been peddled on the shelves of book stores by Knott-Craig.
Ayanda Mdluli is a seasoned senior financial journalist. He writes in his personal capacity and his views do not necessarily represent those of his employers.