WESLEY.INTEL: The meaning of ‘Please Call Me’ inventor’s victory by Nkosana Makate will sink in

Nkosana Makate leaves the Gauteng High Court, Johannesburg. Picture: Timothy Bernard/Independent Newspapers

Nkosana Makate leaves the Gauteng High Court, Johannesburg. Picture: Timothy Bernard/Independent Newspapers

Published Feb 20, 2024


The story of the “Please Call Me” inventor, Nkosana Makate, is not about one man. It is the story of young South Africans who are ignored within corporate SA.

When Makate came up with the “Please Call Me” idea, no one expected it to have come from a young man from a township. The Vodacom leadership at the time expected him to focus on his internship and earn a stipend at the end of the month. However, Makate was pregnant with township experience that informed and inspired the “Please Call Me” idea.

We find a similar attitude in corporate SA today. Ideas of young people from townships are suppressed; they are not expected to come up with technological solutions, yet they have experience of some of the toughest challenges in our society.

In case this is difficult to understand, look at the number of young people who are funded to make their business ideas a reality.

The lack of funding or support has nothing to do with the validity and feasibility of their ideas but more to do with the view that someone from a township cannot think.

This is clear when one looks at the Makate case. Here is a young man who experiences difficulty communicating to his partner. To remedy this, he designs a solution based on his lived experience. In articulating the solution, he outlines the challenge, which was also experienced by many South Africans at the time, and identifies a technology – USSD (Unstructured Supplementary Service Data), a Global System for Mobile Communications protocol.

At this point, it’s important to note that the use case for USSD was different, at least in the South African context. What Makate did is what most technologists do when they come up with solutions for our society. They identify a major challenge and they pick an ideal technology to address the challenge. When they don’t have all the expertise to develop a solution, they partner with those who have the tools and skills.

This is exactly what Makate did and there was consensus that he was the creator. What happened thereafter is what happens to most young people from townships. Their ideas are hijacked by people with access to funders and networks and they present their ideas as if they have conceived them.

There are many Makates in our society.

As this matter is approaching its conclusion, some have come up with strange theories. Some have started to argue that if Makate were granted what was due to him, he would be richer than some of the richest South Africans. Some have also come up with weird theories, such as that paying Makate would lead to retrenchments at Vodacom.

There’s a need to be less confused when it comes to dealing with the Makate matter. We are dealing with a technology intellectual property matter. In this country, under the law, IP matters. People are expected to be paid for their IP. If their IP has contributed towards wealth creation, then they are entitled to a piece of the pie.

The “Please Call Me” matter offers South Africa an opportunity to do what is right. It’s a wake-up call to start acknowledging young people from townships. They have the capability to think beyond imagination. They need support to make their dreams a reality.

They experience the challenges and they are best placed to come up with solutions. When they come up with solutions, there’s a need to credit them, not suppress them. This is what could lead to more relevant and impactful innovations in the country.

When Makate came up with the idea, he understood what he was doing. He understands the value of that idea today.

His experience has opened his eyes about the challenges facing young township people who work in corporates.

When he is paid what is due to him, I believe he will do something to acknowledge innovations by township-based young innovators.

Wesley Diphoko is a technology analyst. Follow him via X: @WesleyDiphoko.

Wesley Diphoko. Picture: David Ritchie / Independent Newspapers.