William Saunderson-Meyer
William Saunderson-Meyer

SA Post Office – It’s time to pull the plug

How long do you keep a family member on life support? Especially one that is utterly useless?

We are speaking here of Auntie Sapo, or the South African Post Office, although the question applies equally to her infirm, twilight zone siblings, Telkom and South African Airways.

Despite a hardwired organisational tendency towards profligacy, state entities did once upon a time operate with at least a modicum of competence. Since 1994, however, they have descended headfirst into a morass of sloth, corruption and entitlement.

While the government appears too ideologically transfixed to do what is needed – to cut fiscal lifelines to entities that are draining the national exchequer — the end is approaching for at least one of them. A combination of managerial passivity and union bloody-mindedness, aggravated by technological change, will sooner rather than later finish of the postal section of Sapo.

Let’s start with union idiocy. The Communication Workers Union (CWU), which has hamstrung Sapo with an almost continuous three-year campaign of industrial action. Four months ago this exploded into a full-blown and sometimes violent shut down of distribution centres.

CWU wanted a 15% increase, though it is now willing to settle for 8%. It also wants Sapo to appoint to permanent positions, with full benefits, 7 945 casual workers. That would expand the workforce to about 31 000.

This is ludicrous in an organisation that in the past financial year lost R359-million (and R337-million the year before) and where, since the auditor general has refused as yet to sign off on Sapo’s already seven-month delayed annual accounts, the deficit might well turn out to be more. Sapo’s workforce should trimmed, not expanded.

The prolonged chaos has had unhappy consequences for the millions of ordinary citizen who still rely on snail mail, as well as charities, whose appeal letters are not getting out, magazine publishers, and 400 000 or so students who take correspondence courses.

Since this an unprotected strike, Sapo is could just fire the absentee workers. However, it lacks the courage. Instead it panders to CWU violence, bleating to the parliamentary committee that while mail was now again being sorted within the centres, the delivery drivers couldn’t upload because of CWU intimidation.

As Nohule Mthethwa, who recently resigned from the board put it, there are “major deficiencies in [the board’s] collective functioning”. Or to quote one of its senior managers appearing before the parliamentary committee earlier this year, Sapo is in ‘a seriously dire’ situation. This hasn’t discouraged the top management giving themselves a 26% increase.

Over the past year there has been at least R2.1-billion in irregular and/or wasted expenditure, R184-million spent on consultants, and R114-million on executive travel.

Yes, the Sapo 20-person board dutifully met 22 times, albeit to no apparent avail, sometimes abroad, travelling en masse.

Fraud and mail theft has increased fourfold over the year, to around R10-million. It’s now so bad that perhaps in the interests of honesty in advertising, it is time to change the Sapo slogan from “We deliver, whatever it takes”, to “We take it, whatever we deliver”.

For three months in a row Sapo has been unable to pay wages timeously and has sought overdraft guarantees from the Treasury. It is claimed that when Treasury is slow to comply, Sapo management has resorted to dipping into the employees’ pension fund.
This week Sapo had to close a number of its post offices in shopping malls because it hadn’t paid the rental. No doubt the cheque’s in the mail

You know things are really bad when an entity with 1 960 outlets has to start brown-nosing its customers. A Western Cape spokeswoman for Sapo said this week: “We would like to ask our customers not to abandon us, we really need them.” She should impart that secret to the CWU.

Given these troubles, it is no surprise that Chris Hlekane, appointed chief executive in 2012, is on ‘special leave’ amid allegations of irregularities. Hlekane’s predecessor, Motshoanetsi Lefoka, left under a similar cloud. Part of the African National Congress’ makeover of Sapo has been to replace the emblematic carrier pigeon with a vulture.

Sapo management and the CWO appear oblivious to the fact that technology and private sector competition, are shutting down the space for traditional postal services. It’s a trend set to continue, and at an accelerating pace.

Put Auntie Sapo out her misery. Pull the plug.

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