A KwaZulu-Natal business couple is suing mobile phone giant Vodacom for close to R100 million in damages, claiming their services were suspended overnight and left with bad debt.
Peet and Heidi-Anne Thuynsma, owners and founders of MDPS (Mobile Diesel Power Systems), have been fighting Vodacom for close to three years.
The Thuynsma have been in business for 20 years, providing generator services to Vodacom KwaZulu Natal (KZN). Basically, if the power went off due to load-shedding or something else, MDPS would drive with a mobile generator to a site to provide standby power so that the Vodacom network continues to provide services to its customers.
Some Vodacom sites required permanent power as there was no Eskom connection and MDPS were providing diesel to mobile phone towers. The company also provided maintenance to Vodacom owned generators.
The central claim is that Vodacom suspended its services after false claims related to buying diesel for running the mobile phone operators’ generators for its mobile phone towers in KwaZulu Natal. MDPS has never made any admissions to the fraud allegations brought against them by Vodacom.
“MDPS has lost everything they have built up for over 20 years. What has happened to MDPS can be described as a life sentence,” Heidi-Anne told TechFinancials.
“MDPS has lost all credibility and good standing with the banks, job opportunities disappeared, even close friends deserted us. Thinking ‘where there is smoke …. there must be fire! We are thankful for having survived this far but have lost all our assets, life insurances, family members have sold houses to keep us afloat.”
MDPS had two contracts, one with Vodacom and one with Ericsson. Vodacom brought Ericsson, now Mobax, to manage some divisions.
Heidi-Anne said that after meeting with Ericsson, MDPS was informed by Ericsson that they had done a thorough investigation and found no irregularities and they notified Vodacom that MDPS was wrongfully accused.
Just at the doorstep of arbitration, Ericsson decided to settle out of court with MDPS. The parties signed a non-disclosure agreement.
“The fact that Ericsson settled out of court is a clear indication that there was no misconduct on MDPS’s side,” explains Heidi-Anne.
Thereafter, MDPS was offered work by Mobax but the company alleges that Vodacom blocked them from working with Mobax.
“We were offered numerous jobs by Mobax and we have a WhatsApp to confirm that Vodacom prohibited this work from happening,” says Heidi-Anne.
To resolve the issue, MDPS submitted its complaints to the Parliament Portfolio Committee on Small Business Development.
That process, which was held on 13 March 2019, also yielded nothing as Vodacom made unfulfilled promises to resolve the dispute.
“What the committee saw was a cover-up by Vodacom and Ericsson because of the people involved. If the process had taken two and a half years to date, by the time the legal process was complete, MDPS would have been wiped out,” the chairperson of the committee Ruth Bhengu, said at the time.
Heidi-Anne says MDPS is going legal as to get a fair pay-out. She wouldn’t be drawn into disclosing the amount of their claim.
“MDPS went into excessive debt to be compliant to all Vodacom’s needs,” she explains.
“Over the years Vodacom demanded more. And MDPS employed more staff, more vehicles, generators, accommodation, medical aid for all employees, NOSA compliancy and the list goes on! Then to be suspended overnight. We worked solely for Vodacom.”
MDPS had had to close down and the owners were forced to sell most of the vehicles and generators while their staff were left without work.
The collapse of MDPS had a huge ripple effect in the community of Margate, in KwaZulu-Natal South Coast.
“We kept our staff as long as we could thinking that a ‘suspension’ is temporary and must surely be resolved! Now two and a half years later and no resolution,” says Heidi-Anne.
“Our staff lost their livelihood. Businesses that we’ve supported are struggling as we were one of the big clients.”
Vodacom seems to have ruined a perfectly able company with a 20 year plus excellent service record. Some communities members around Margate believes that this action has further resulted in poor signal quality in KZN for Vodacom.
Contacted for comment, Vodacom admitted it was aware of the legal action taken against it by MDPS. However, the telco said it would defend the action.
The mobile phone operator said it received summons on 28 November in which MDPS is claiming R276 489.15 in respect of monies that it alleges is due for services and/or equipment which it alleges it provided.
The operator also said MDPS is further claiming about R97 million in respect of damages which it alleges it has suffered.
“Vodacom has entered an appearance to defend MDPS’ claims,” a company spokesperson said via email.
“The matter is now the subject of litigation and Vodacom is therefore precluded from answering specific questions relating to the matter, suffice to say that it does not believe that there is any merit to the claims.” – firstname.lastname@example.org