The Great Ghost Office Robbery

Post Office

South African Post Office workers, staging their fifth and longest strike in three years, may want to consider jobs that have become redundant over the past century.

Modern refrigeration rendered the ice cutter of the 19th century superfluous, lamplighters had to find new occupations when electricity took over, and switchboard operators are a throwback to the not-so-distant past of “nommer asseblief”.

Does anyone still have milk delivered? Ten-pin bowling alleys were once a first employer for many urban youngsters, but automation meant the chore of setting pins and delivering balls back to customers could be done by machine.

World War 1 saw the rapid development of vulcanised rubber so the wheelwright, whose highly skilled job it was to repair wooden wagon wheels in 1914, was no longer required by 1918.

As recently as 70 years ago, mill workers in Britain were woken each morning by the knocker-upper – it was someone’s job to tap on the bedroom window of a house till a head appeared to ensure that mill workers got to work on time.

Then cheap alarm clocks came, and nowadays most of us use cellphones to rouse us from our slumbers. SMS has replaced the telegram and to a large extent e-mail has replaced the letter.

All of this raises questions about the post office’s sustainability. It’s mostly used to deliver stuff you don’t want: traffic fines, utility bills and, increasingly, advertising.

For more well-heeled urbanites, municipalities and companies are using technology to deliver their bills. Already the City of Cape Town is sending people whose fines are overdue an SMS to warn them summons is imminent, and referring them to services such as

The only way to get any real public attention from the post office, one social media wag said this week, would be to put all pay cheques in the post. Modern banking means we don’t have to worry about that either.

Small online shopping portals that relied on the post office for deliveries to customers are having margins crushed by their use of couriers.

It’s the way of the world. Where the state fails to deliver, the private sector smells an opportunity and steps in. Wealthier South Africans have worked around the inability of the state to protect them, heal them and educate them by going private. Post is next.

The failure of the post office will hit the poor hardest. It is failing in even its most basic mandate to deliver postal services.

The vast majority of South Africans cannot afford courier services, scanners and computers. The failure of the postal system is simply a deepening of the chasm that separates the privileged who can make another plan from the rest of society who are vulnerable to state failings.

The concerns of postal workers are nothing new. Successive management teams and ministers have failed to deal with basic issues of employment contracts and pay.

None of this will be helped by the most recent crop of bosses evidently feathering their own nests despite the fact that the business they run is increasingly irrelevant.

Business Day this week obtained a draft copy of the now one-month overdue annual report, which showed top managers at the post office awarded themselves hefty pay increases. The report showed that the utility had a R359-million loss. Despite that, the group’s 24 most senior managers, including four executives, were paid 26% more this year than last – earning R32.5-million between them.

Finance Minister Nhlanhla Nene appealed last week in his medium term budget policy statement for moderation in public sector pay negotiations, which have started at 15%. He may as well have put his appeal in the mail for all the good it will do.

by Bruce Whitfield: Award-winning financial journalist and broadcaster.



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