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Saving SA Post Office vital for ‘dream of a better life for all’

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Picture: Henk Kruger/African News Agency (ANA) – SA Post Office CEO Nomkhita Mona’s ideas to rescue the post office from its financial, managerial and technological crisis are a watereddown rehash of the strategy put forward by her predecessor Mark Barnes, five years ago, says the writer.

By Trevor Ngwane

South African Post Office (Sapo) workers are under attack from their bosses.

The executives want to cut wages by 40 percent through the reduction of workdays from five to three days a week. There is no talk of cutting CEO Nomkhita Mona’s R3.9 million a year salary.

Picture: Bongani Shilubane/African News Agency (ANA) Former CEO of the South African Post Office Mark Barnes. At the heart of Barnes’s strategy was turning the Post Office into a state bank. He wanted to add banking and e-commerce services to the Sapo mandate of delivering mail to all parts of South Africa, including remote rural areas.

Her ideas to rescue the post office from its financial, managerial and technological crisis inspire no one because they are a watered-down rehash of the strategy put forward by Mark Barnes, the previous CEO, five years ago.

Quoting Hegel, Karl Marx wrote that historical facts and personages appear twice, “the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce”. Mark Barnes arguably led “The Great Post Office Turnaround” with passion and inspired determination. For a while, he seemed to succeed including, as he noted, getting workers to be proud to wear the Sapo uniform.

In 2016 and 2017, he persuaded the trade unions to accept a 0 percent increase saying: “Let’s give management a chance.”

At the heart of Barnes’s strategy was turning the Post Office into a state bank. He wanted to add banking and e-commerce services to the Sapo mandate of delivering mail to all parts of South Africa, including remote rural areas. He hit a brick wall and resigned when the ANC government insisted on keeping the Post Bank and Post Office operations separate.

Nevertheless, he succeeded in persuading the government to pay social grants through Post Bank, no small achievement as commercial banks insisted on charging the state for distributing social welfare cash payments while Sapo did not. Barnes left Sapo with his vision of social solidarity, cross-subsidisation and building a public sector that allows the government to invest in infrastructure that it owns, thus improving public services vis-à-vis a private sector that wants to profit from social grants.

Since his departure, and with legislation being prepared to separate Post Bank from Sapo, the Sapo trajectory has shifted towards meltdown, a path followed by many state-owned entities under the ANC. In April 2021, the auditor-general declared Sapo commercially insolvent.

Over the 2019/2020 financial year, Sapo incurred losses of more than R1.7 billion and its liabilities exceeded its assets by R1.5bn. Like Eskom, Sapo relies on government bailouts to stay afloat. It received an audit disclaimer because of irregular, fruitless and wasteful expenditure, and the overall poor status of its accounting records.

Sapo has developed a reputation for offering poor service to its customers. The pride of Sapo – the family jewel as it were – its 1,500 branches and 690 agencies located in every corner of the country, are rapidly deteriorating, with many unable to provide services and more than 50 forced to close. Jokes about calling the Sapo service “snail mail would be an injustice to snails” and how it was slower than “the Roman Empire’s delivery service 2,000 years ago”, abound.

The Sapo attack on workers’ wages comes on the back of its failure to pay staff contributions to medical aid, pensions and the Unemployment Insurance Fund despite making deductions for these benefits. Workers are left medically exposed and anxious about whether they will get their pensions when they retire.

Workers continue to suffer a working environment characterised by broken windows, leaking roofs and enduring cold night shifts without heating. The vision of public sector workers working hard and proud to deliver a quality service to society, especially to the working class and the poor, is under attack.

The migration of customers from publicly owned to private sector service providers is undeniable in the case of Sapo. Market research suggests that members of the public prefer the services of some 300 courier companies rather than the post office if they want a package delivered.

A wage strike by workers in July 2018 left Sapo with more than 38 million parcels and letters accumulated over the two-week strike. It took more than six months to clear the backlog, but the damage was done to Sapo’s reputation as a reliable service provider.

This was a repeat of the great strike of 2014, when an unscrupulous Sapo management had lied to workers, promising to make part-timers permanent but with no intention or resources to do so. The strike was long and bitter, taking more than four months to resolve. Irreparable damage was done to labour relations and the seeds of the demise of Sapo’s business reputation were laid.

The July 2018 strike was by the same workers who had shown their goodwill and trust when they accepted a 0 percent wage increase to give management a chance to turn Sapo around. There can be no successful and efficient public sector without workers. The mandate of the public sector is to serve the working class, the poor and society.

Barnes was considered a maverick by some, but his vision was to build a public sector Sapo that would fulfil its mandate to serve all and do so in an efficient and sustainable manner, vis-à-vis the private sector and its incessant incursions into the provision of public services. He wanted Post Bank to make Sapo economically viable and sustainable.

The Sapo lesson is that there is a need to develop, protect and nurture the public sector as the provider of public services.

The ideas of Margaret Thatcher and other neo-liberal ideologues seek to attack the public sector to solve the capitalist crisis of profitability through privatisation, commercialisation and commodification of services. They seek to make profits in the provision of water, electricity, housing, healthcare, education, transport and postal services.

If we allow this, many will be left bereft and only a few will enjoy quality services. We must fight to save the Post Office, including its control of Post Bank. We must make the dream of a better life for all a reality.

Trevor Ngwane is Director of the Centre for Sociological Research and Practice at the University of Johannesburg