How Nelson Mandela quickly resolved a dispute between Vodacom and MTN

The government and the regulator can learn from former president Nelson Mandela’s unique approach to resolving conflict between companies like Vodacom and MTN.

The battles around the temporary spectrum, the spectrum auction, and digital migration have caused tremendous damage to the country.

These battles, which often land in court, have prevented spectrum from being handed to mobile operators which will increase broadband access and decrease data prices.

Many leaders, including President Cyril Ramaphosa and new finance minister Enoch Godongwana, have called on the quick resolution of the spectrum challenges.

In his medium-term budget policy statement, Godongwana said it was important to speedily resolve issues blocking the release of high demand spectrum.

He added that South Africa must ensure the completion of digital migration by March 2022. “This is crucial to enable the full use of additional spectrum that will be auctioned,” he said.

President Cyril Ramaphosa has also called for mediation to resolve the legal impasse to ensure the spectrum auction go ahead as planned.

He said mobile operators have approached the courts to resolve their disputes, which is a result of living in a country that is governed by the rule of law.

Ramaphosa has asked the role-players to resolve their disputes and have the disputes mediated to remove legal battles holding the country back.

Over the years there have been many similar calls for former presidents, former finance ministers, and other leaders. These calls came to nothing.

Ramaphosa, Godongwana, and other government leaders can learn from the late president Nelson Mandela about how to tackle these disputes.

Instead of calling on companies to resolve their differences in speeches and statements, Mandela took the bull by the horns and resolved the problem himself.

It was also not a mediated process involving lawyers. He used a far more novel, and effective, approach to resolve a dispute between Vodacom and MTN.

Alan Knott-Craig
Former Vodacom CEO, Alan Knott-Craig

In his book, Second Is Nothing, former Vodacom CEO Alan Knott-Craig recalled the day he received an invite from then-President Mandela to join him for tea at the Union Buildings in Pretoria.

This call came amidst a nasty dispute between Vodacom and MTN, where MTN used dirty tricks to beat Vodacom in a network quality contest.

Apart from the fight playing out publicly in the media, Knott-Craig decided to take MTN to court for defamation.

Soon afterwards, before the court battle proceeded, Knott-Craig received the invitation from Mandela.

After he arrived, Mandela graciously greeted him as if they had been friends for years. Another person was at the meeting – MTN CEO Bob Chaphe.

Mandela told Knott-Craig and Chaphe: “I believe there is a court case pending between MTN and Vodacom. I am sure that you both have good reasons for the court case, but I don’t want to know what they are. However, it doesn’t look good for the country to have our top mobile network operators at loggerheads.”

“There has to be another way. Why don’t you go into my private study and see if you can come up with a solution to all this? Come back and let me know what you decide.”

The two CEOs did not know how to resolve the matter in the absence of their lawyers, but they also did not want to disappoint Mandela.

Although they were fierce enemies and were not on speaking terms before the meeting, they agreed to find an amicable solution.

Knott-Craig decided to withdraw the court case, and Chaphe agreed to issue an apology to Vodacom for manipulating the network quality tests.

In less than half an hour, the dispute and legal battle between Vodacom and MTN was settled. It was time for the two CEOs to bring the news to the president.

Mandela smiled broadly when he saw them, and before they could tell him they had resolved the dispute, he said – “I knew you wouldn’t disappoint me. Thank you for sorting out your disagreement”.

Now read: South Africa’s cellular networks must reapply for temporary spectrum

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How Nelson Mandela quickly resolved a dispute between Vodacom and MTN