Nationalisation, silver linings and the SA Post Office

Posted on February 15, 2015


Every cloud has a silver lining. This expression implies that there is some good in every troubled circumstance. Yet it is often difficult to find that silver lining in terms of benefits gained or lessons learned. However, in the present shambles that is the Post Office many workers and trade unions seem to have learned a valuable lesson: nationalisation — state control — does not necessarily mean any improvement.

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

Now the “workers’ control” element will probably set on edge the teeth of the usual suspects on the free market fringe. And especially among those individuals with short memories who think only of the four-month postal strike last year.

But that was the culmination of years of frustration, a last straw or tipping point born of desperation. As this column noted in October last year, the strike was “not a cause, but a symptom of the malaise” affecting the Post Office.

And it was postal workers who first raised warning flags about the state of this public service back in 2005. They called for accountability, raised fears about corruption and bewailed evident incompetence. “But nothing was done,” says Aubrey Tshabalala, general secretary of the CWU. He is supported in this by his counterpart in the SA Postal Workers’ Union (Sapwu), David Mangena.

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

This does not, however, mean that the unions were without fault. The CWU, as part of Cosatu and therefore of the governing, ANC-led alliance, was sometimes accused of soft-peddling on criticism of a state-owned enterprise. Sapwu, on the other hand, 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 around the country there are post offices that are efficiently run, with staff that relate to customers who often hail from the same communities. And, with very few apparent glitches, mail, even in this increasingly digital age, continues to be delivered: the system at the “coal face” works. But it is losing out, especially in parcel and freight, to much more expensive private companies.

“It almost makes you think that the politicians and those involved with management have shares in outfits like PostNet,” says Mangena. Tshabalala points out that even post office boxes are rented — at higher rates — by private companies.

Having driven the Post Office to the verge of bankruptcy, the board has now departed and an administrator, Dr Simo Lushaba is in charge. “And he has closed down post offices without consulting with the communities or the workers and their unions,” says Tshabalala. Such action he maintains, is illegal.

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

“We are sorry. We apologise, but the matter has been reported and is being looked into,” the manager says to an irate customer. “This wouldn’t be tolerated in any private business,” the customer fumes.

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