Not licked yet

2012-10-17 00:00

“WHEN last did you get a warm fuzzy feeling from receiving an e-mail?” asks Sandile Keswa, manager: business development — Philatelic Services at the South African Post Office.

The use of e-mail and cellphone texting, not to mention social networking websites such as facebook, have had a huge impact on postal services worldwide. Visit your local post office and you’ll find it no longer deals exclusively with letters and parcels but, in order to survive economically, now offers other services — you can pay your telephone bill, your TV licence plus a whole host of other accounts.

But Keswa’s question begs another: when did you last get a letter? And speaking from a philatelic point of view: a letter with a stamp on it?

In years gone by, stamp collecting was a phase every child (well, boy probably) went through. A hobby that occupied a school term or two before another fad kicked in. The hobby was fuelled by the fact that stamps were easy to obtain. They came on letters that popped through your letter box. Plus you could also buy packets of stamps fairly cheaply. Now letters have dried up and the only place you see stamps for sale these days are in specialist philatelic shops or tourist outlets at airports.

So what has happened to stamp collecting in an age of e-mail and texting? It is losing popularity, according to Anne Southwood who heads up the Philatelic Society of Pietermaritzburg. “Interest is waning a bit,” she says. “It is now more of an older person’s hobby. People who have retired find their old collection — because once every schoolboy collected stamps — and they get interested again. Or widows acquire collections from their husbands and then take an interest.”

Bev McNaught-Davis, former president of the Philatelic Society of KwaZulu-Natal, says that “unfortunately youngsters are just not seeing stamps. But diehards like me get our grandchildren involved in one way or another.”

The Philatelic Society of KwaZulu-Natal, which has around 90 members, celebrated its centenary last year and meets every month at the Berea Bowling Club in Glenwood. McNaught-Davis was exhibiting a collection of stamps from the Isle of Man at the meeting I attended where a lively discussion took place around the health or otherwise of stamp collecting. One member said that the age of those present — on average over 60 — was indicative of future trends.

“It’s still going strong in Germany and Hungary,” said George Dombai, while Ted Brown, current society president, observed that “they are very serious about stamp collecting in Australia”.

According to the club secretary, Jaqui Forster, some people “are returning to letter writing as they consider it more personal than sending an e-mail”.

Joe Boes said that although stamp collecting wasn’t dying but “maybe isn’t as strong as it could be — but it’s one of the few hobbies that’s not dying. That thanks to the post offices that are continuously putting out new stamps. Thanks to them we always have stamps to collect.”

The post office produces two types of stamps, definitive stamps and commemorative stamps. Definitive stamps are the common or garden ones, those you are most likely to purchase if you want one to put on a letter. These are sometimes referred to as a “regular issue” and are sold by the post office over an extended period. The last issue of the Definitive stamps was in October 2010 and they feature local beadwork. Definitive stamps account for about 99,9% of the post office’s stamps.

The post office also issues commemorative stamps, which feature events and people relevant to South Africa. The post office accepts proposals from the public for the issue of such stamps and these need to be made two years in advance of the year the stamp will be issued. According to Setempe (Sotho for stamp), the South African Post Office’s philatelic magazine, an average of 100 stamp proposals are received for every year.

From these proposals, the Stamp Advisory Committee, which consists of non-post office members appointed by the Minister of Communications, draws up a short list of between 10 and 15 themes per year. The short list is then submitted to the minister and cabinet for approval.

So far this year, there have been issues featuring John Dube, first president of the ANC, artist, George Pemba, South Africa’s role in astronomy, the baby Big Five and, in the SA Bird Series, the smallest sunbirds. Of particular interest to Maritzburgers, the first new theme issue for 2013, on February 22, features Gift of the Givers and Rescue South Africa. Later in the year will see stamps issued to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Rivonia Trials.

“Stamps are regarded as the smallest ambassadors of our country,” says Keswa. “Each stamp has a story to tell and they all must have a relevance to South Africa. “For example, when Michael Jackson died there was no stamp issued — although other countries did issue stamps. He was a great musician and he gave us the moonwalk, but for South Africa he had no relevance. If stamps are ambassadors for our country, they need to portray and tell a story about our country.

“Ninety percent of stamp collectors collect stamps because they have a story to tell,” says Keswa. “And more collect commemorative stamps than definitive stamps. They come in a limited edition, that’s how they derive value — from scarcity.”

Keswa acknowledges that while the drop in mail volumes has impacted on stamp collecting, there is still an international market for stamps and this is catered for by the post office’s philatelic services department which sells stamps via its website www.vir

The Chinese are big buyers of South African stamps. “China has around 22 million registered stamp collectors,” says Keswa. “Even though China makes the electronic gadgets that have had such an impact on mail services, stamp collecting is still part of their life. It’s even a subject at school because of the educational value of stamps.”

Keswa has also ventured into schools to talk about stamps. “I gave a talk on the Big Five issue. This led to some debate about which rhino — the black or the white — was the one in the Big Five. I had to do some research; in fact, the rhino on the stamp is used to represent both animals.”

But Keswa also encountered children who didn’t know what a stamp was. “Is it a kind of sticker?” one of them asked. Another was surprised to hear people still wrote letters.

Although stamp collecting won’t die out, its days as a popular hobby are clearly already numbered. As time passes, it will likely become the niche preserve of collectors, a niche profitably catered for by the post office.



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