Inside Labour: Can Post Office deliver a silver lining?

2015-02-18 15:00

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Every cloud has a silver lining, but it’s often difficult to locate when it comes to benefits gained or lessons learnt. But in the present shambles that is the SA Post Office, many workers and trade unions seem to have learnt a valuable lesson: nationalisation or state control does not necessarily mean an improvement.

The Communication Workers’ Union (CWU) has expanded on this theme, saying: “The current shenanigans happening at the SA Post Office are a confirmation of the fact that nationalisation without workers’ control and input is meaningless and unsustainable.”

“Workers’ control” will probably set the usual suspects’ teeth on edge in the free market fringe – particularly among those with short memories, who think only of the four-month postal strike last year.

But that was the culmination of years of frustration. As this column said in October last year, the strike was “not a cause, but a symptom of the malaise” affecting the Post Office.

Postal workers first warned about the state of this public service in 2005. They called for accountability, raised fears about corruption and bewailed evident incompetence.

“But nothing was done,” says CWU general secretary Aubrey Tshabalala.

His view is echoed by his counterpart in the SA Postal Workers’ Union (Sapwu), David Mangena.

The unions are still awaiting the outcome of a 2011 complaint to the Public Protector, which alleged that R2.1?billion had been misappropriated over the years. Last year, at a time when Post Office board members continued to handsomely reward themselves, a leaked audit report revealed probable fraud of R10?million.

This does not mean the unions were without fault. The CWU, as part of labour federation Cosatu and therefore the tripartite alliance, was sometimes accused of soft-peddling on criticism of a state-owned enterprise. Sapwu was charged with falling into a “divide-and-rule” trap set by management.

But these problems, and the establishment of the small Democratic Postal and Communications Union, were essentially sideshows.

The reality is that there are post offices that are efficiently run, with staff who relate to customers who come from their communities. Mail continues to be delivered with very few apparent glitches.

But the Post Office is losing out, especially in parcel and freight, to more expensive private companies.

Having driven the Post Office to the brink of bankruptcy, the board has departed and an administrator, Simo Lushaba, is in charge.

“He has closed down post offices without consulting with the communities or the workers and their unions,” says Tshabalala.

Appeals by postal staff for everything from previously agreed pay rises to providing simple backup services to offices have fallen on deaf ears. My local post office in Muizenberg has not been able to process debit or credit card payments since October last year.

“We are sorry. We apologise, but the matter has been reported and is being looked into,” says the manager to an irate customer.

“This wouldn’t be tolerated in any private business,” fumes the customer.

And that is the point: incompetent management in the private sector drives its businesses under faster than the tax-subsidised, state-owned variety. With well-trained, efficient staff and a management accountable to the workers and the communities they serve, the CWU maintains the Post Office will truly deliver, no matter what it takes.

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