On Monday, nostalgia, tinged with concern, will provide a worker and union undercurrent when the post office, with justifiable pride, celebrates the centenary of South Africa’s first delivery of mail by air. Similar feelings afflict postal workers the world over as this public service continues to be a job-loss victim of the internet and micro-chip revolution.
On August 4, for example, the South African post office announced a breakthrough: the commissioning of new mail processing machines that, at 99 per cent accuracy, can sort 30 000 items of mail every hour. This is a level of work that could be achieved by perhaps 40 human sorters. In addition, machines do not tire, and, as a result, slow down or make mistakes.
South Africa is also, only now, starting to feel the full effects of the advance of the internet and of email although there is already a perceptible decline in the amount of “snail mail” being processed. The result is a steady decline in job numbers.
In Britain, this decline has been quite precipitous. There are now 65 000 fewer jobs in the British postal service than there were in 2002 and, every year, the number of letters and parcels handled declines by an estimated 5 per cent.
A similar pattern has been observed in the United States where the postal service is grappling with annual losses of more than $7 billion. Jobs continue to be shed as the service attempts to become “leaner and more flexible”.
One cost-cutting measure — in part necessary because of fewer workers — is to do away with the same day delivery of mail. To this end, President Barrack Obama has approved a five-day mail delivery service.
These are the dark — and darkening — clouds that will hover on the horizon on Monday as postal workers, philatelists and the public at large celebrate the great air mail milestone in South African postal history. They will gather in the Cape Town suburb of Muizenberg where four buildings, linked to the postal service, and only hundreds of metres apart from one another, provide a graphic illustration of the fortunes of the postal service.
Nearly 100 years ago to the month, 729 postcards were delivered to the first formal Muizenberg post office. They were carried to the seaside hamlet in a delicate looking, single seater Bleriot XI monoplane, the same model of aircraft that, two years earlier, had made the first channel crossing between France and England.
This historic flight of just 13km, from the Kenilworth race course to a strip of open ground alongside Muizenberg’s Zandvlei took just 7.5 minutes. But it signaled a major step in the growth of a public service that was to employ many thousands of workers over succeeding decades.
For most of the past century, the army of postal workers continued to grow. They were charged with carrying, sorting and delivering millions of letters, postcards and parcels, getting them to their destinations in all weathers and in all conditions.
Uniformed men and women who are still the public face of the service, trudge from door to door and building to building with bulging bags of post. And their transport from depot to mail round became — as it still is today — the bicycle.
These daily deliveries were made possible by legions of clerical staff in post offices, by collectors of bulk mail and by thousands of workers responsible for sorting and bagging millions of items of post. Every year, as Christmas neared, the flow of mail became a veritable avalanche, making for additional thousands of temporary jobs over the holiday period.
On Monday, this history will be remembered and celebrated, with the “posties” and their ubiquitous bicycles being a major feature in the commemoration of the first air mail delivery. A team of cyclists are today (subs: Friday) completing the last leg of a journey from Rustenburg to Kenilworth that began as a World Post Day event on October 7, the day that 100 000 special airmail commemorative stamps were issued.
On Monday morning in a pedal-powered duplication of the first air mail delivery, the team will cycle to Muizenberg and, amid much fanfare, have letters franked by local postmaster, David Meinking. Over the past 20 years, Meinking has served in two of the four “post office” buildings in Muizenberg.
Meinking’s Muizenberg career began in the imposing, three-storey building on Main Road with its cavernous, parquet floored sorting area and mahogany counters. Built in 1934, it was a symbol of a burgeoning service that had outgrown the first formal post office, a building declared a national monument in 1991.
That original post office building, now a dilapidated, vandalised and looted police museum, stands alongside the oldest postal depot in the country, the 350-year-old whitewashed and thatched roofed Het Posthuys (The Post Office). It was established as a place where ships, sailing around the Cape, could leave letters to be passed on to other vessels going to the East or back to Europe.
It took more than 120 years from the time of Het Posthuys to establish the first official post office — in Cape Town’s castle — and another 119 years before the first official Muizenberg post office was built and air mail arrived.
Twenty-two years later, the volume of mail saw the move to the imposing, three-storey structure that served the area for 50 years before mail volumes started to decline and more efficient, often automated, systems were employed. A decade ago the Muizenberg post office became a neat, four-counter operation in the local shopping centre.
For postal workers, this “Muizenberg experience” epitomises the problems workers everywhere face. As the International Trade Union Confederation notes, many of today’s young unemployed will never find work; that the estimated 205 million men and women who now have no jobs will only see their numbers grow.
It is not so much a race to the bottom in terms of wages, but a slow slide toward mass deprivation.