Some time around 1920, a farm voorman in the Kat River Valley wrote a letter to the citrus board in Port Elizabeth. He wrote on a page of a school jotter, using carbon paper to retain a copy. Addressing an envelope, he folded the letter into it, and slid it into a leather bag, issued years before by the post office in Fort Beaufort. The bag was hung on a peg near the kitchen door. The following morning, his four year old daughter slung the bag over her shoulder. Helped by her mother, she mounted her pony and set off for the post pole on the Seymour road. She was a neat little figure, erect in the saddle in her sundress, her face shaded from blinding sun by her sunhat. Everyone on the farm had allotted duties. The mail was hers.

The pony knew the routine, and stopped next to the pole without her needing to rein it in. She hung the bag on a peg on the post pole. There were others hanging there, placed earlier. Nobody moved in the full heat of day. The little girl leaned over past the ‘out’ bag, grasped the ‘in’ bag, and slung it over over the pommel. She could not yet read, but knew which pegs were for what. The post wagon never got it wrong, nor did she. She turned and walked the pony back to the farm. Her father liked to read the post after breakfast.

The Citrus Board letter would reach Fort Beaufort mid morning, where it would be transferred to another bag destined for Port Elizabeth. It would be on the train before lunch, and would reach the sorting room in PE late afternoon. A postman would enter the sorting room at first light in PE the next morning, would arrange his mail in its order of delivery, and set off. He had two delivery routes, and would want to complete both before knocking off and going for lunch.

Five days later, the farm voorman_ would be reading a reply to that letter, fetched from the post pole by way of the exact process, reversed, and slipped out of the leather bag duly fetched by his little daughter.

This was a hundred years ago. Aeroplanes were rare. No vehicle, whether road, rail or sea, exceeded 50 kph at the time, yet this correspondence was exchanged quicker then than it would be today.

Recently, my son referred to SA as ‘third world’ and was corrected by someone who believed the term ‘developing’ was more appropriate. He disagreed. He said:

“South Africa was a developing country, but it is no longer. It has retrogressed, and is still retrogressing”.

Right on. We have wrecked all of our State Owned Enterprises. Of all of those disasters, the destruction of the Post Office has to the be the worst slap in history’s face, because the ANC would not be in place without it. Of all the ANC government failures since democracy, SAPO is also the most puzzling. Airways, railways, Health, defence, armaments, water affairs, all the other state owned enterprises, it could be argued, are technical, some highly so. But, the post?

The process is about as simple as it gets.

  1. read address on envelope
  2. put it in a bag you know is going toward that address
  3. repeat 2. until it arrives in the area
  4. deliver it to that building in that street at that number

How hard

as Jeremy Clarkson might ask,

can it be?

I am not claiming that optical character readers are not technical, but the postal services the world over worked fine without such things for centuries. When postal codes came about in SA, the shock was that the post was not delivered any quicker. The “mechanical sorters”, as they were called then, were, in the popular phrase of the day, a ‘dead loss’.

Humans were better. As I write, the arguments are about whether AI (ChatGPT) will do things better than humans: I am not placing any bets on ChatGPT fixing our Post Office any better than humans can, but I do suspect that ChatGPT would not damage the PO worse than humans would. In time, the sorting problems were ironed out, and for a brief couple of years, we enjoyed receing post quicker, until it came overnight to the reef from port cities.

It is arguable that our school education aims to equip people, as a bottom line, to do no more than deliver the post, or run a post office. It worked adequately throughout two world wars. I have my Uncle Albion’s letters from WWI, written in the trenches of Delville Wood and the Second Battle of Arras, to my grandfather in Pietermaritzburg.

World wide, the post is the single thing that ‘just works’. No matter how much nor where we fought one another, in all weathers, the post got through. Yet, we in SA have not made the cut. Everyone knows the stories about our PO, and has their own disappointing ones to tell. One of the worst is from MyBroadBand, about ten letters that were posted to Lyttleton, Centruion, from a variety of towns across SA. Only one arrived, and it was from a neighbouring town. One out of ten. Frederick van Zyl Slabbert would say “treurig”. The New Zealand Post Office consulted for a time here, but were so shocked at what they witnessed, they bailed out of the contract and headed home without a care about the money. They could see what was coming.

It is bad enough that we can’t get it up enough to deliver the post. What is worse is, especially when you consider how sensitive our MK veterans can be, that the PO is what really won against apartheid. Few people even know the story. Wikipedia has the bare outline, but nothing is said of how 96 million GBP made its way into the hands of everyday township families in South Africa. A ‘scam’ is mentioned, but that was more about banking, about getting money into the hands of advocates and lawyers who were hired to defend breadwinners.

What I mean is the money that went to the wives and families of jailed political prisoner breadwinners, who no longer needed to worry about the survival of their families while they were in jail.

The process was not as simple as the mail, but it was also not technical. Church of England people in SA identifiede needy families whose breadwinners were in jail, the Church passed their details to Anglicans in England. Money collected in England by IDAF was distributed to parishioners in England, who wrote letters to the needy families, and inserted pound notes, perhaps a ‘fiver’ or a ‘tenner’, into envelopes together with a letter and posted them to SA. Between four and fourteen days later, the money was extracted from envelopes by the mamas and the gogos in townships all over SA. The stronger the British currency grew, the luckier the recipients.

It was even said that the Afrikaner Nationalist government knew all about this foreign exchange coming (illegally) into SA, but turned a blind eye to it, because the foreign exchange was much needed and helped offset apartheid sanctions.

The fact is it could not have done so without a working post office. So what we have now is an organisation that has crushed the very entity that it owes its life to. For decades, the mail came by train. That is the meaning of the word “Meyl” in “Shoshaloza Meyl”, though PRASA’s ignorant ad agency copy writer didn’t know that. S/he said the word conveyed “a warm colloguial sense”. All of our main line trains were generally referred to as “the mail train”. Later the mail left the trains and was sent by air between the Reef and port cities.

Now, all three of “the post” AND “railways” AND “airways” appear doomed.