Nicola Mawson, IOL Business Editor. Picture: Matthews Baloyi
Nicola Mawson, IOL Business Editor. Picture: Matthews Baloyi
File photo: Sundeip Arora, Free Images
File photo: Sundeip Arora, Free Images

Johannesburg - So, the South African Post Office seems to be even deeper in the mire, with reports emerging of lost parcels, delivery delays and stolen post.

Small wonder then, that it’s R1.4 billion in the red.

That’s a lot of money for what is essentially a defunct agency to have lost. Although, the value of post it misplaces could well exceed that; we’ll never know, because the postie doesn’t admit these things.

And, how do you tally up what has been “lost”?

I suspect the money it has lost through a sheer lack of service delivery is substantially more than the haemorrhaging the post office is seeing to its bottom line.

Let’s face it, when was the last time you actually walked into a post office to collect or send a letter?

Heck, when was the last time you even opened your mail box? Some people I know don’t even have one, they’ve renovated them out of their walls.

Excuse me for being Captain Obvious, but most of what we do now is via email. If we need to send a parcel, we use a courier service.

The item will get there, the next day, in one piece - even if it does cost a bit more; actual delivery is worth the price.

Our experiences at the hands of the postie make a mockery of its slogan: “We deliver, whatever it takes.” Because, nope, it doesn’t.

I actually had the experience of going to the post office the other day. It was unavoidable. I forgot to put a return address on the back of the envelope. And then, because our complex doesn’t have post boxes, I had to borrow a mate’s addy.

So used to email are we.

So, it’s no surprise that the post office’s bottom line loss ballooned by R1 billion in the space of a year. And that it wants to borrow long-term debt of R2.5 billion to fund some sort of turnaround strategy.

Turnaround strategy. Pull the other one, we’ve heard that before.

A sad day

I distinctly remember the joy of receiving letters in the mail from friends or far-flung relatives. I’d read them hungrily and then write back almost immediately before hiking down the road to the post office to send my missive, filled with important details of what I did that day, back.

That, of course, was before I learnt that what arrives in the post is generally a not-too-welcome bill.

My little one will never know this joy. Instead, she’ll get mail on her phone. A buzz in your pocket is hardly as exciting as a love letter in the post.

I’ve resolved to write and post a letter to her, using a real stamp - those old-fashioned things that have been replaced by automated franking machines.

She’ll probably get it in a decade, when she’s leaving her teenage years and will shake her head at stupid mom.

That’s quite a sad thought, but I guess it’s the price we pay for progress.

Part of the turnaround plan seems to involve the fact that government wants to use post offices to deliver set-top boxes to those who qualify for a subsidy.

You know, the decoders that people with analogue TVs will need to watch the new-fangled digital signal that was meant to be turned on at least three years ago.

(Analogue, incidentally, was meant to be off air last June in terms of the International Telecommunication Union’s agreement we inked in 2006. Turning analogue off will free up more space for actual, fast, broadband. But that’s a story for another day.)

By the time South Africa starts migrating, and decoders are ready to be delivered - some 6 million last time I covered this topic - the postie may well be no more.

Yet, the post office doesn’t have to become a museum piece. It can still be relevant today, and even revamp itself as a modern entity also offering a retro service.

It’s not the only such entity around the world that needs to reinvent itself. The UK’s Royal Mail is in the same boat.

What the postie should have done is not assumed it would always be relevant, not assume that tech would not lead to its demise. Look how disruptive Uber is. And when Google gets self-driving cars going? What then of the entire metered taxi industry?

I have no idea what the final details are in the turnaround plan, but I know that if it doesn’t get it right this time, it’s tickets.

This is it, SAPO. Failure will mean no more post office, and that will be a sad day indeed. (Unless the government keeps it propped up, which is even sadder.)

* Nicola Mawson is the online editor of Business Report. Follow her on Twitter @NicolaMawson or Business Report @busrep.