Inside Labour | Post Office left to die by discord in porous labour movement

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The SA Post Office has been in financial difficulties for a while.
The SA Post Office has been in financial difficulties for a while.
Moeketsi Mamane


The South African commentariat – in print, radio and television – made it clear throughout the latter part of last year that there was consensus that this year would be rough politically, socially and economically.

Now, just six weeks into the year, it seems the heavy weather has begun, with more on the way, despite some promises that the latest state of the nation address (Sona) might provide a glimmer of hope.

But this latest annual presidential assessment turned out, in the view of many within and outside the labour movement, to be the “same old nonsense again” – long on rhetoric and short on resolutions to any of the multiple problems the country faces.

A standout feature was the promise to add another minister to what is perhaps the world’s largest Cabinet.

While the popular focus remains, understandably, on the energy crisis, another critical blow came within 24 hours of President Cyril Ramaphosa’s Sona – the probable death knell for the SA Post Office. It was the confirmation that the long-mooted retrenchment of what was initially put as 6 000 postal workers was going ahead.

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Combined with government’s continued intention to turn the Postbank – a separate entity from the Post Office and the essential financial undergirding for the national postal service – into a state bank, the demise of the Post Office seems inevitable. As such, South Africa will become perhaps the second country in the world where a national postal service has disappeared.

Guatemala was apparently the first country where this state service collapsed. That was in 2016, after an eight-year outsourcing period. Into that vacuum stepped the private sector and costs soared, to the detriment of the poor.

A similar process, with courier services, supermarkets and even petrol stations providing data receipt and delivery nodes, is already established locally, and growing.

PostNet, a franchise business established in 1994, is essentially a private-sector post office, now with nearly 500 outlets, mainly in urban shopping centres.

The services provided by a post office, especially parcel logistics and money transfers, are critical in any modern society. And, as former Post Office CEO Mark Barnes noted this week, Post Office services in South Africa provide a bridge between the formal and informal economies.

It was for this reason that what started as mail delivery services became publicly owned entities that adapted to the needs of citizens and technology. Such services, through the Post Office, are already severely curtailed, courtesy of an inept closure programme that saw offices closed without warning and even entire PO Box units disappearing the same way.

There were a few protests from individuals and from mainly small businesses about the loss of PO Box facilities, but the people most affected were, as in Guatemala, the poor – both the low-paid employed and the unemployed.

They use, and need, conveniently located post office services that are efficient and financially viable.

But the poor, while disorganised, remain largely voiceless. That this should be so in 2023 is an indictment of the labour movement, especially in January and February of this year, when the 50th anniversary of that watershed in South African history, the Durban Moment, was celebrated.

On January 9 1973, workers at the Coronation Brick and Tile factory outside Durban came out on strike, triggering a wave of industrial action that, as Professor Ari Sitas of the University of Cape Town correctly notes, “changed the tide of history” in South Africa. By February of that year, demands for better pay and working conditions provided the trigger that reignited the largely stalled struggle against apartheid.

For all the ideological quibbles and personality clashes, this development gave rise to a largely principled, large and democratic trade union movement that took on the might of a repressive state while helping to build and unite communities.

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It is a role trade unions have played, and could still play, if that “spirit of 1973” could once again be awakened.

Unfortunately, for the public at large, there is only a faint chance of the labour movement getting its united and democratic act together any time soon – and there is perhaps no hope of the SA Post Office achieving its proclaimed and belated “Post Office of tomorrow” strategy.

Bell is a writer, editor and broadcaster specialising in political and labour analysis

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