Who created Vodacom’s Please Call Me service?

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310119 Vodacom headquaters was shut down today in Midrand North of Johannesburg following the Company refusal to pay the Please Call Me invenotr Nkosana Makate by 10am this morning.Picture :Simphiwe Mbokazi African News Agency (ANA).3

In his autobiography, titled Second is Nothing, disgraced former Vodacom Chief Executive Alan Knott-Craig infamously claimed that he came up with the idea of the network provider’s Please Call Me service while having a deep conversation with a fellow staff member on the balcony of the company’s head quarters in Midrand, Johannesburg.

In the autobiography, documented by himself and author Eunice Afonso, the paragraph describing how he came up with the service reads: “Alan was leaning over the railing of the Vodacom building chatting to a colleague, Phil Geissler, when Phil pointed out one security guard trying to attract another’s attention, and because his buddy didn’t see him, the security guard called him on his cell-phone. Alan immediately spoke to Leon about creating a Please Call Me service.”

Fast-forward to 2019, and many court cases later, Knott-Craig was found to have lied about his version of events on how the Please Call Me services was created. Almost a decade later, the Please Call Me service has generated billions of rands in revenue for Vodacom. In 2009 alone, when Second is Nothing first hit the shelves at Exclusive Books, Vodacom had generated 20 million Please Call Me requests.

This number has since almost doubled in 2019. Knott-Craig’s version of events in his autobiography was tested and proven to be fabricated in 2008 when the case was first heard at the South Gauteng High Court in Johannesburg.

The significance of this is that a former CEO of one of the biggest companies in South Africa had lied and stole credit about a concept that was created by a black employee who did not have access to a patent office nor a fraction of the war chest and resources that Knott-Craig had in his possessions. However, with the little that he had, former employee, Nkosana Makate took on the corporate giant in a David vs Goliath battle of the ages.

Vodacom, for years was stuck in a legal battle with Makate, who claimed he invented the company’s Please Call Me service, and was promised compensation by the company. The Vodacom Please Call Me court battle revolved around the fact that Makate felt he was not appropriately compensated for his product idea by Vodacom. The court battle started in 2007 and in 2016, the Constitutional Court ruled in Makate’s favour.

The Please Call Me saga is another sad example of how thankless corporate South Africa can be towards black excellence. Imagine being black in this world, constantly having to contend with racial ignorance and prejudiced views in the workplace that simply cannot comprehend how a young black man from humble beginnings could invent a service that revolutionised a whole industry raking in billions for investors, resulting in massive expansion projects and creating thousands of jobs in the process across the value chain.

There is no ways, that a person whose life is embedded in white privilege could have conceptualised the idea for the simple fact that it does not form part of their daily reality. This is also a sad case in the marketing and advertising industry in South Africa where many black employees in this space conceptualize brilliant ideas that get usurped by white executives when it comes to pitching the idea to clients, customers and senior management.

Makate’s story alone on how he came up with the service is so powerful. Makate came up with the Please Call Me idea back in 2000 as an employee in the finance department at Vodacom. It was a love story between two people who struggled to communicate in a country that still feels the negative impact of the migrant labour system because of the over concentration of jobs in major cities and urban areas. As is the story of many black employees goes, he was also grossly underpaid and could not afford to buy airtime everyday to call his significant other.

When he struggled to effectively communicate with his girlfriend as it was taking a toll on his relationship, he came up with the idea. How then, a corporate executive such as Kott-Craig with unlimited airtime on his company sponsored contract phone could purport to come up with such an idea was not only dubious but also smacked of white privilege.  

The current lessons learned with this case should also reinforce the assertion that bosses like him need to be sanctioned appropriately for misleading investors and their customers, especially if he received performance bonuses for implementing Makate’s idea. The Please Call Me service is free. Also, due to the high costs of airtime and data prices in South Africa, it would be a dubious proposition at best to limit the Please Call Me service to unemployed individuals.

Most working class black South Africans and those in the middle class are often one or two pay cheques away from abject poverty, thanks to racially charged structural dynamics where pay disparities are still implemented along racial lines in South Africa. Since the service is free, Vodacom generates revenues by placing small adverts on the Please Call Me messages. Given that 38 million people are using the service, let’s do the math:

According to marketing and advertising experts in digital marketing, the cost of sending a free Please Call Me message is incurred by the company that wishes to place an advert on the service.

The cost of the actual SMS is roughly about 89 cents, plus an additional 20 cents admin fee for the creation of the content on the SMS. Creating the advert will cost another admin fee of roughly 30 cents, and then another R10 placement fee is charged on the advert. Therefore, depending on the advertiser and the amount of people the business intends to reach, one Please Call Me SMS can generate between R11 and R15 per SMS for Vodacom or another network provider.  On a daily basis, this service has the potential to reach as much as R8 million people on a daily basis, according to marketers.

Out of all the network providers in South Africa, Vodacom is by far the largest and generates the most revenue with about 41 million subscribers. If 8 million people are using the Please Call Me service everyday, that means Vodacom has the capacity to generate between R88 million to R120 million a day from just the Please Call Me service alone.  Over the past nine years, the above has been how much Vodacom has been making on a daily basis from the service if we use the figures at our disposal.

However, this is just the tip of the iceberg as the real money spinner of the Please Call Me service is not in the advertising, but it is in the return call. Out of Vodacom’s 41 million subscribers, about 36 million of these subscribers are under their prepaid offering all of them have access to the Please Call Me service. The giant makes more revenue than all of the other network providers and has more than enough resources to do the right thing and pay Makate fairly. 

Ayanda Mdluli is a Special Investigations Reporter for Voices360. He is also the national spokesperson for the Forum for Journalists for Transformation (FJT) in South Africa.